The Detroit Church Project
Created and maintained by David Baily and Mark Kelly.
The black church has long been among the most important of African American social institutions. For a people historically encumbered by racialized exclusion; Jim Crow, residential segregation, redlining, and their more modern legacies and inheritors, the black church has been the cornerstone of African American communities and organization throughout the nation.
The Detroit Church Project attempts to provide a documentary history of the operation of the black churches in Detroit. Writing that it "is dedicated to preserving records and memories from the religious history of one of the United State's [sic] oldest and most diverse cities," the "Detroit Church Project," a creation of Michigan State professor of American religious and cultural studies David Baily and undergraduate student Mark Kelly, seeks to "to gain a perspective on the history of Detroit, with both its successes and failures, through the churches that often provided a framework for its neighborhoods and communities."
At the core of The Detroit Church Project is a documents section that claims to contain digitized versions of five thousand documents created between 1883 and 1973, though it appears that this claim is currently more aspirational than operational. Ranging from incorporation documents, to hymnals and flyers, the documents can be either searched or browsed from a list which the user can sort by either document title or date. Each of the digitized documents is furthermore given a clear and unique title to facilitate searches, though the provided guidance "for best results, type in a single word or two-word phrase" indicates potential inefficacies with their embedded search engine. Some, though not all, documents are transcribed, and, where a transcription is present, the editing is consistently excellent with clear explanations given for each alteration and correction.
Perhaps the greatest drawback to The Detroit Church Project is that little analysis is given. The black church in Detroit is the cornerstone of one of the most important African American communities in the North. It is quite certain that Dr. Baily would have some interesting insight on the subject, but these insights are nowhere evident. The Detroit Church Project claims only to be dedicated to "preserving records and memories" of the black churches, but it raises the question whether or not that limited aspiration is sufficient. Lacking any substantial guidance, argument, or narrative form, the project is primarily useful only to those who either already knows what they are looking for or who possess the considerable time, energy, and dedication required to figure it out. This immediately diminishes the potential audience for what is an important part of our history.
Along these lines, the ability to sort documents by subject, a capability which is readily available with existing technology, would be a considerable enhancement to this project. As the cornerstone of the African American community in Detroit, the black churches would have been intricately involved in such momentous occurrences as the Great Migration and the Northern Civil Rights Movement. A reorganization that foregrounds this participation would help make clear the importance of the black church in American history.
The authors readily concede that The Detroit Church Project is a work in progress. Started only in 2008, it has accomplished a great deal in its still short existence. Having said this, further conceptual and editorial refinements are required. In addition to the search and sorting enhancements noted above, a map view, which would set the churches within their physical space, would help define the spatial dimensions of the topic and of the larger African American community. The resources section is comprised of a link to the Matrix resource. Although Matrix is clearly explained, it is unclear what relationship it has to this project or what a user should do once they get there. There are furthermore a number of editorial errors that should have been corrected. Perhaps because it was repurposed from another project, the search page appears in the browser tab as "Women in Science." The authors furthermore mispunctuate the possessive form of United States in their thesis statement. While it is a minor error—an apostrophe is one space off—it is an unnecessary error that undermines a worthwhile project.
The Detroit Church Project is a worthy project that remains in development. With further clarity and refinement of purpose, it will be a significant addition to the digital library.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011