Interview With Mead Prize Winner Christina Davidson

2019’s Sidney E. Mead prize for best unpublished article from dissertation research of advanced graduate student or recent PhD went to Christina Davidson. Now a postdoc at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, her “Redeeming Santo Domingo: North Atlantic Missionaries and the Racial Conversion of a Nation” is included in our latest issue. Read it on Cambridge Core here!

We asked Dr. Davidson about the journey from dissertation to article to book manuscript, reading recommendations, and where she sees the history of Christianity in the Caribbean and Latin America field headed.

Describe your article in one sentence–go!

At the turn of the twentieth century, white British and American missionaries aimed to transform the Dominican Republic’s international image from a “black” republic to a “Latin” nation; however, their visions for Dominican society dismissed other models of Protestant evangelization practiced by black missionaries on the island who envisioned the Dominican Republic as part of the African diaspora. 

What drew you to the topic of missionaries and racial conversion in Santo Domingo?  

I began research on the history of Protestantism in the Dominican Republic over a decade ago when I first visited the country as an intern for the United Nations. When I reached Santo Domingo, I made contact with the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Nuevo Bethel. I did so because I was raised an African Methodist, and as a young woman working abroad I wanted to establish a support network within the local community. As I made friends with the minister Rev. Margarito Jones, his family, and other members of the congregation, I became intrigued by the history of African American emigration to the island of Hispaniola and specifically the history of Protestantism in the Dominican Republic. I learned that the first permanent Protestant communities on the island were established by African American emigrants who fled to Haiti in the early 1820s. Many of them were associated with the AME Church.

The history of Protestantism in the Spanish Caribbean is not well known, and this is particularly true for African Methodism in the Dominican Republic. African Methodism has never gained a large following on the island, and today most Dominicans associate the AME Church with Samaná, the northeastern peninsula of the island where many descendants of African American emigrants still reside. Associating the AME Church solely with the “Americanos” of Samaná, however, obfuscates the dynamic history of black Protestantism on the island of Hispaniola—particularly the early history of African Methodism in the capital Santo Domingo and other places in the Dominican southeast, as well as Haiti. It also encourages the erroneous assumption that black Protestant missionaries affiliated with the AME Church and other denominations did not wish to convert Spanish-speaking Catholic Dominicans. I have encountered some version of this argument many times in my conversations with people both on the island and in the United States who believe that only white missionaries concerned themselves with converting the majority Catholic Dominican population at the turn of the twentieth century. Based on the available archival documentation, this assumption is incorrect.

My initial impetus for writing this article was to correct the misconception that African Americans did not plan to evangelize Dominicans. Correcting this narrative complicates the history of Protestant Christianity in the Dominican Republic and Latin America in a few ways. First, it provides a historical viewpoint that takes into account black missionaries and the history of black Protestantism on the island. Second, it demands a critical analysis of the racist power structures that has caused the extant narrative that dismisses black missionary history. Third, it calls for a reevaluation of other historical narratives regarding Dominican Protestantism and the history of Protestantism in the Spanish Caribbean and Latin America in general. And, fourth, it turns our attention to the ongoing ways that poor black migrant communities in the Dominican Republic—especially Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent—continue to experience forms of social marginalization.

Where all did your research travels take you–anywhere surprising or unexpected?  What have you learned from your travels?

So far my research has taken me to various archives in the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. These places are not surprising given the topics that I study, but I have found some unexpected documents tucked away in the Archivo General de la Nación and the library of the Iglesia Evangélica Dominicana in Santo Domingo.

My experience in the Dominican Republic in particular has taught me the value of forming relationships with people. I am a historian by training and I love archival research, but I have also spent a lot of time conducting oral histories, interviewing Dominican church leaders, and observing and participating in various church services and conferences. I have also presented my research at venues in the Dominican Republic including the Academia Dominicana de la Historia, the Universidad Evangélica Dominicana, and the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development. As an American researcher, one of my priorities in writing about Dominican Protestantism is to make sure that I remain connected to the people whose history I am telling. Another priority is to share the insight I have gleaned from English-language resources with scholars on the island. I want my research to not only further develop the scholarship on Protestantism in the Spanish Caribbean, but also empower other scholars to do more work on this topic—especially people living in the Caribbean who cannot easily gain access to documents in the United States.

The Mead Prize is for an article drawing on dissertation research–can you talk about how you went about turning your dissertation into an article?  What about your book manuscript?

My dissertation covers the history of African Methodism in the Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, Haiti at the end of the 19th century. My article in Church History derives from the epilogue of my dissertation and originally began as a research paper which I presented at the 2016 Latin American Studies Conference. When I completed my Ph.D., I knew that this part of the dissertation would not appear in my first book. I had received feedback from a number of scholars, and based on this advice I rewrote the piece for submission to Church History.

A postdoctoral fellowship at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University has enabled me to reimagine my first book, tentatively entitled Converting Hispaniola: Religious Race-Making in the Dominican Americas. While I build upon my dissertation research, my book manuscript moves beyond AME Church history to explore more broadly how Christian ideology influenced racial and national identity formation in the United States and the Dominican Republic at the end of the nineteenth century.

Was there any single piece of advice that helped you through your dissertation process?

We have all heard this maxim before: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.” Undergoing graduate school and the dissertation process helped me to realize that research and writing are long term processes. I was not completely satisfied with the state of my dissertation when it was finished, but that is O.K. I received excellent feedback from my mentor Laurent Dubois and the other members of my dissertation committee. I have since received more feedback from other mentors and colleagues who have pushed me to be a better scholar. I am grateful for my academic community, and the advice I have received. I am also grateful that I have had the chance to improve my research and writing over the past few years at Harvard. 

For someone with little or no knowledge of the history of Protestant Christianity in the Spanish Caribbean and Haiti, what one or two books or articles would you recommend?

The extant literature is still divided according to country. For Puerto Rico and Cuba, I would recommend Luís Martínez-Fernández’s Protestantism and Political Conflict in the Nineteenth Century Hispanic Caribbean (2003), and Samuel Silvio Gotay’s Protestantismo y política en Puerto Rico, 1898-1930 (1998). For the Dominican Republic, George Lockward’s El Protestantismo en dominicana (1976) is still the most comprehensive book on the topic. For Haiti, I have turned to denominational histories such as the A History of Methodism in Haiti (1991) by Leslie Griffiths; Philip Everhard’s History of the American Baptist African and Haytien Missions (1831); and John Saillant, “This Week Black Paul Preach’d”: Fragment and Method in Early African American Studies,” in Early American Studies 14 (2016). The Cambridge History of Religion in Latin America (2016) provides a helpful overview of the broader Latin American context.

How do you see religious studies/history of Christianity/religious history (or whatever field or subfield you like) of Latin America and the Caribbean evolving in the future?  Is there something in particular you’d like to see, or contribute to?

I am most interested in seeing more histories that explore the intersections of religion, race, and U.S. imperialism in the Americas writ large. More specifically, the transnational turn has led scholars of American history to think deeply about the history of the “United States in the world” and the impact of “the world” on the United States. However, the scholarship on transnational religion in the Americas has not yet considered how American Protestantism impacted the Spanish Caribbean and Haiti during the early twentieth century. My article in this Church History issue touches on this topic, and I plan to expand my research further in this area in the future. On another note, I am also eager to see more scholarship on the transnational history of black Protestantism in the Americas. There is still much work to be done here—particularly when it comes to Canada and the British Caribbean in the post-emancipation period, Afro-Caribbean Protestant migrants in Latin America and the United States, and black Protestants’ involvement in black internationalism in the twentieth century.

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