Sutton Elbert Griggs
(1872 - 1993)


Biography Index || Religion Index


Born in Chatfield, Texas, on June 19, 1872, Sutton E. Griggs was an orator, a minister, a write, and a publisher. He was educated in the Dallas public schools and at Bishop College in Mars Hall, Texas. Upon completing his studies at Richmond Theological Seminary (Virginia Union University) in l893, he was ordained and spent the next two years as pastor of the First Baptist Church at Berkeley, Virginia. During this period, he married Emma Williams, a public school teacher.

 In 1899, Griggs moved to Nashville to become the corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Convention and the pastor of First Baptist Church, East Nashville. He left several years later to become pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Memphis; he spent one year as the pastor of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas. Later, he returned to serve as Tabernacle pastor.

 In Memphis, Griggs organized in 1914 the National Public Welfare League, which promoted social efficiency among Afro-Americans and interracial cooperation. He was a disciple of W. E. B. DuBois and a supporter of the Niagara Movement and the newly founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1930, Griggs left Memphis to return to Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison. He later resigned this position to go to Houston, Texas, to establish the National Religious and Civic Institute.

Although Griggs is known and respected as a leader in the Baptist church, it is as a writer--more specifically, a novelist--that he has received most attention. During his lifetime, Griggs wrote more than thirty-three books, five of them novels. In 1901, while in Nashville, he established and operated the Orion Publishing Company; here he published, promoted, and sold his own works to the Afro-American community. The works published by Orion were predominantly novels, which combined facts and fiction to present the plight of an oppressed people and a solution. These novels focused on the political issues, the definition or image, and the dignity and survival of black Americans. It is not for his literary style or technique that Griggs is studied, but for his response to the racial injustices of his day, for his defense and portrayal of the humanity and dignity of his people, and his suggestion of what could happen if racial persecution continued. He has been called a "militant" by some and an "accommodationist" by others, while another portion of his audience views Griggs as vacillating between the two philosophies. Whatever label is applied to Griggs, he used ridicule, reason, sympathy, and fear in his novels to address racism in America; he, like Martin Delany in his novel, Black, extols the black-skinned hero.

His early novels, Imperium in Imperior (1899) and He Hindered Hand; or, The Reign of the Repressionist (1905), are responsible for most of the attention Griggs has received. Imperium in Imperior focuses upon the classic responses to American life by Afro" Americans: assimilationism and nationalism. The issue of participation in the American democratic idea is presented through the account of a national Negro political organization, which is designed to unite all Negroes in an active body, and the actions of two main characters. One of them is a nationalist and one an assimilationist; one is black-skinned and one a mulatto. In the novel's development, Griggs reflects the tenor of the day: miscegenation, oppression, Jim Crowism, political exploitation of the black man, and the Negro's lack of protection. The Hindered Hand depicts the cruel and tragic results of miscegenation, racial injustices, and the question of emigration to Africa. It also is an attack upon the plantation literature of Griggs's day by such white writers as Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon, Jr.; specifically, it is an attack against the propaganda in Dixon's The Leopard's Spots. A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-l900.

Some sources list his death in 1930, but it is believed that Sutton Griggs died January 5, 1933.

                      Helen R. Houston

GRIGGS, SUTTON ELBERT (1872-1933). Sutton Elbert Griggs, novelist and minister, was born at Chatfield, Texas, to Rev. Allen R. Griggs in 1872. His father was a former Georgia slave who had become a prominent Baptist minister in Texas. After graduating from Dallas public schools and Bishop College in Marshall (1890), Griggs attended Richmond Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, between 1890 and 1893. On May 10, 1897, he married Emma J. Williams of Portsmouth, Virginia. Upon graduating from seminary Griggs took a pastorate in Berkley, Virginia. It was here that he wrote his first novel, Imperium In Imperio (1899), which may be the first black nationalist novel. Over the course of his career Griggs wrote more than a dozen books, including five novels, five social tracts, his autobiography, a short biography of John L. Webb, and The Kingdom Builder's Manual (1924), a booklet of biblical quotations. At his expense he published and distributed these works, which were generally written for "the aspiring classes of the black south." Although virtually unknown among whites, his writings were generally read by African Americans. Griggs wrote in a very direct style that was somewhat stiff and formal. He was one of the few Southern members of the Niagra movement, a civil rights group which had an outspoken platform based on the issue of racial and social justice and which eventually evolved into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although he has often been characterized as a black nationalist based on the plot of his first novel, this may be an overgeneralization since his subsequent novels do not contain this theme. In Imperium in Imperio Griggs chronicles the social and political injustice to which blacks are subjected. He describes the meeting of the Imperium in Imperio, a secret political organization in Waco, Texas, composed of blacks who are frustrated with the social and political status of blacks in America. In the novel the leader of the organization argues for the violent takeover of the state of Texas. Neither this work nor any subsequent novel by Griggs received widespread distribution. Although succeeding Griggs novels, Overshadowed (1901), Unfettered (1902), The Hindered Hand (1905), and Pointing the Way (1908), are deemed "less militant" by some scholars, they received poor circulation. One reason may be that many of Griggs's philosophies on race relations were in direct conflict with the philosophies espoused by Booker T. Washington and other popular black leaders of the day. Griggs's views on improving the status of blacks were influenced by several contemporary social theorists, including Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Benjamin Kidd. Griggs felt that society evolved from lower to higher forms by adopting "Christian virtues." In his later view blacks needed only to practice Christian virtues (love, honesty, patience, etc.) in order to improve their socioeconomic status. Members and organizations of the black community would have to work together in order to instill these traits in the race. Griggs outlined these views in the social tracts that he wrote and in lectures he made in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.

Beginning in 1895 Griggs spent twelve years as pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Nashville, Tennessee. He then moved to Memphis, where for nineteen years he was the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. There he undertook an ambitious plan to expand the services of the church. In his words: "Religion ought do more than help a man reach heaven when he dies. It ought to help him to live in this world. It ought to help people meet every problem of life." Griggs was active in the National Baptist Convention, where he encouraged the educational development of young ministers. He was also president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary from 1925 to 1926. In 1930, after making various additions, including a swimming pool and an employment bureau, the church ran into financial problems and was foreclosed. Griggs returned to Texas to serve as pastor of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, where his father had previously been the minister. He later resigned the pastorate to start a Baptist institute for religious and civic affairs in Houston but died on January 2, 1933, before realizing this project.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James W. Byrd, "Five Early Afro-American Novels," Southwest Review 57 (Summer 1972). Dallas Morning News, December 2, 1990. Robert E. Fleming, "Sutton E. Griggs: Militant Black Novelist," Phylon 34 (March 1973). Hugh M. Gloster, "Sutton E. Griggs: Novelist of the New Negro," Phylon 4 (Fourth Quarter 1943). Sutton E. Griggs, The Story of My Struggles (Memphis: National Public Welfare League, 1914). Lester C. Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977). Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982). David M. Tucker, Black Pastors and Leaders: Memphis, 1819-1972 (Memphis State University Press, 1975).

Handbook of Texas; Texas State Historical Society



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