Reverend Sutton E. Griggs, minister, writer, and community leader, was born in Chatfield, Texas, in 1882. He was the son of Allen R. Griggs, a former slave and Baptist minister. He attended public schools in Dallas, Texas, before attending Bishop College in Marshall, Texas, where he graduated in 1890. Griggs continued his education at Richmond Theology Seminary in Virginia from 1890 to 1893 and became an ordained Baptist minister. He received his first pastorate in Berkley, Virginia, where he served for two years and married Emma J. Williams before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, to become pastor of the East First Baptist Church. In Nashville, he operated his own publishing company before moving to Memphis to become pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1913. In Memphis, he was a member of the Inter-Racial League and created the National Public Welfare League. In 1930, after the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Memphis was sold for failing to pay off its debts, Griggs returned to Texas to serve as pastor of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison. Sutton E. Griggs died in Houston on January 2, 1933. He was buried in Dallas.
Sutton E. Griggs was active in a number of local and national organizations and remained committed to improving race relations in the American South. He was active in the National Baptist Convention, and while living in Nashville, he participated in the Niagara movement and helped organize a streetcar boycott to protest segregation. He was also a prolific writer. He wrote five novels between 1899 and 1908, and they are often considered a precursor to the Black Nationalist literary tradition of the “New Negro.” In his first and best-known novel, Imperium in Imperio (1899), he wrote about a secret organization of black people plotting to sabotage the U.S. Navy and create a black state by taking over Texas and Louisiana. The two main characters debated the organization’s advocacy of violence to accomplish its goals, highlighting the competing nationalist and accomodationist political strategies within the black community. While Griggs considered his novels’ financial failures, W. E. B. Du Bois claimed that unlike his contemporaries he was one of the few African American writers who wrote to a black audience.
In Memphis, Griggs distanced himself from the Black Nationalist philosophy expressed in his earlier writings. In his sermons and writings, he focused on racial uplift and cooperation with white southerners as keys to racial advancement. He relied on white financial support to rebuild a new Tabernacle Baptist Church and organized the National Public Welfare League to improve the image of African Americans among white southerners. In his book, Guide to Racial Greatness; or The Science of Collective Efficiency (1923), he argued that character deficiencies among African Americans needed to be reformed in order to elevate the black race. His work was praised by white Memphians, but in the black community he was often criticized for being a “White Man’s Negro.” Despite these criticisms, he remained committed to ending racial prejudices throughout his lifetime.
Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptist, 1865-1925 (1997); William J. Moses, “Literary Garveyism: The Novels of Reverend Sutton E. Griggs,” Phylon 40, no. 3 (1979): 203-16; David M. Tucker, Black Pastors and Leaders: Memphis, 1819-1972 (1975)