A Church and Two Brothers – Two Splits

In March of 1953, a disagreement between my father, then known as Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., pastor of St. Mark’s Community, United Presbyterian Church and a group of members who were not happy with the direction he was was taking the church, came to a head. My father and 300 members of the congregation resigned and founded St. Mark’s Community Church, which several months later became Central Congregational Church and in the 1960s became the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

1953_Church_split2The split within the church also precipitated a family split. The ties between my grandfather, Dr. Albert B. Cleage Sr. and his brother Henry Cleage were  broken. The close relationship they shared throughout their lives, was gone. My sister didn’t know she had a cousin Shelton Hill (Uncle Henry’s grandson) until he introduced himself when they were classmates at Northwestern High School.

Left to right: Albert, Josephine, Edward.  Back L Henry, back R Jacob

The Cleage siblings: left to right front; Albert, Josephine, Edward. Back left Henry. Back right Jacob

My grandfather Albert B. Cleage Sr. was the youngest of five siblings.  He and his brother Henry were always close. They helped organize Witherspoon United Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and worked together to open the black YMCA there. During the 1930s and 1940s, they lived several blocks away on Detroit’s old West Side and saw each other almost daily.

After my father, Albert B. Cleage Jr. (later known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman) was ordained in 1943, he served as pastor of churches in Lexington, KY, San Francisco, CA and Springfield, MA.  During those years he often wrote home asking his family to help him find a church in Detroit.  More than once he mentioned getting his Uncle Henry to help.

In 1951 a group representing the United Presbyterian Church, including Albert Sr. and his brother Henry, organized St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. It was located on 12th Street near Atkinson. My father was called to be the pastor. They started with 90 members and increased to over 300 during the following two years.

Uncle Henry and my father were both strong minded men. By the spring of 1953, they had reached an impasse over who was in charge and whether the focus of the church should be  on its own members or on the larger community. An emotional church meeting in March 1953 caused a split between both the church members and the brothers, Albert Sr. and Henry.

In 1956 my grandfather Albert was very sick with cancer when the family heard that Uncle Henry was quite ill and in the hospital.  Soon after they heard that Uncle Henry had died. They wondered if they should tell their father.  He was so sick and they didn’t know how it would affect him.  In the end, they didn’t have to. My grandfather was lying in bed and said “Henry died, didn’t he?” They said he had. Grandfather said, “I thought so.”  They never figured out how he knew.

My grandfather was too sick to go to the funeral. Afterwards, Uncle Henry’s family had the funeral procession drive by my grandparent’s house on Atkinson. The cars drove past very slowly.  It was a gesture toward the healing of a rift that began with the church fight in 1953.

Henry William Cleage died April 10, 1956. My grandfather Albert Buford Cleage Sr. died a year later on April 4, 1957.  Both are buried in Detroit Memorial Cemetery in McComb County, Michigan.

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12 Responses to A Church and Two Brothers – Two Splits

  1. yolanda says:

    a sad story indeed, brothers torn apart because of religious beliefs. Death unites us all though.

  2. LindaRe says:

    So sad for the brothers. Church splits are not pleasant, no matter the reason for the split.

  3. Pauleen says:

    What a sad story to cause such a rift between two brothers who had been so close. I suppose because they were both men of strong principles it was not unsurprising once their attitudes or approaches differed. It sounds as if the families still didn’t reconcile despite the funeral procession.

    I’ve been thinking about your posts Kristin and what an important part of history they are. While every family makes its own contribution to the local history, yours goes much wider to the broader community and even nationally. Have you considered collating all your posts (or even selected historical ones) into a published book? It would be a great asset.

    I really like the collage as well.

    Pauleen

    • Kristin says:

      I was too young to understand what was happening but, looking back, I think that the two people involved in the split were my father and his uncle Henry. I believe my grandfather supported his son. Some of the daughters did get back in touch but there wasn’t the closeness there had been. And it was too late for the brothers.

  4. Vicky Daviss Mitchell says:

    What a sad story. It’s too bad that sometimes families have those rifts and never get to heal in the process. I would like to think they made up in Heaven.

  5. Paul Lee says:

    Dear Kris,

    Yet another valuable post. But, of course, in your case, there aren’t any other kind.

    I’d like to know your answer to Pauleen’s question: “Have you considered collating all your posts (or even selected historical ones) into a published book? It would be a great asset.” Indeed, it would, particularly if it’s as fully illustrated as the original posts.

    I have the honor to remain

    Your Li’l Bro’,

    Paul

  6. Kristin, What a great post, Apart from the sadness of the family split. The details and the formation of the new Church is a wonderful piece of social history. I love the collage. I am going to read back through the various links. I completely agree with Pauline. The details of the church does deserve to be published. Your family has been involved in really important piece of the locality history.

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