From praising God to selling booze: one man’s unorthodox approach to seeking reparations for the descendants of slaves
On a sunny Saturday morning in early September, about two dozen worshippers clapped their hands and sang along with the choir at the First Church of American Slaves, a tiny building on the corner of Dr. W.J. Hodge and Jefferson streets. Despite its provocative name, the service at the nondenominational church was not much different from any other African-American church in the area. The voices of the Chosen Few, an all-male gospel quartet, filled the chapel with “Lord Show Me The Way” in a style reminiscent of old Doo-Wop groups.
But this was not just another worship service. It was a joining ceremony. The Body of Christ Fellowship Church was merging with the First Church of American Slaves, which was founded in July by a nonprofit called American Slaves Inc. (ASI). The Body of Christ Church used to hold its services at Shiloh Baptist, but in January 2011, Shiloh’s pastor was sentenced to two years in prison for accepting kickbacks on a Department of Housing and Urban Development construction contract. Some Body of Christ members were uncomfortable being associated with the scandal, and so they looked for a new home.
After the singing, American Slaves Inc. president and founder Norris Shelton walked up to the lectern to welcome the new members. Shelton, 74, is tall and dark-skinned, with a white beard and infectious laugh he’s not shy about using. On this occasion, he’s smiling ear to ear because the merger with Body of Christ was a milestone in what he refers to as the American Slave Movement. The movement is best exemplified by a peculiar poster hanging in the First Church of American Slaves. The poster includes an American flag and a photo of the slave Kunta Kinte, the main character from the “Roots” mini-series, and it reads: “American born and bred and still searching for freedom.” On one side of Kinte is a picture of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence; on the other are the words “slave,” “colored,” “Negro,” “black” and “African-American.”
ASI eschews the use of all of those words to describe “descendants of American slaves” — the term they would like to become an official race designation. On several occasions, Shelton corrects me by saying “African-American” should only be applied to new immigrants to the country. He believes the term is too imprecise to describe the relationship between the United States of America and its natural-born, dark-skinned citizens who are the descendants of slaves.
“The ‘S’ word is what it’s all about,” Shelton says. “They can have all the African-American programs they want. They can have all the black or minority programs they want. If it doesn’t have ‘descendants of American slaves’ in it, it doesn’t mean nothing.”
The American Slave Movement officially started in 2001 when Shelton incorporated American Slaves Inc. The First Church of American Slaves had its first service on July 3, the movement’s 10th anniversary. Shelton intends for the church to be a vehicle to carry his ideas to the Louisville community and ultimately the nation. The merger with Body of Christ is an important step because the new congregation will expand ASI’s reach into Louisville’s black community. ASI doesn’t keep membership rolls because all descendants of American slaves are considered members. But until now, American Slave Inc.’s biggest accomplishments have been a 2009 black leadership forum it sponsored at the University of Louisville and a neighborhood clean-up with Operation Brightside.
“What you are witnessing here today is history is being made,” Shelton told the combined congregations at that September service. “God directed us to merge church and state together so that we could continue our trek to freedom. Dr. (Martin Luther) King told us that our next fight would be on the ‘economic battlefield.’ He was killed, now we have to take up that cross. Go to the economic battlefield and merge church and state together so our people will have the strength to move forward.”
Norris Shelton is the most laid-back prophet you’ll ever meet. He’s also got a quick wit and knack for imagery. In a slight Southern drawl, he’ll tell you the U.S. government releasing emancipated slaves “into a capitalist society without capital” is like putting a baby in prison. And Shelton will warn you that his autobiography, “Alley Rat,” is kind of raw. It’s one of six books he has available on the ASI website, www.slavesusa.com. Shelton’s most popular book is his first, “America’s Little Black Book.” It is ASI’s manifesto. Shelton’s truck is a traveling advertisement for the book and much of his wardrobe consists of T-shirts and sweatshirts with the book cover on the front. It took Shelton 15 years to write “America’s Little Black Book.”
“That book was given to us by God,” Shelton says. “I started writing about the wrongs done to me in the industrial arena. That’s what I started writing about. I hired editors and all of this. But at the same time I was writing, I was keeping notes of the injustices I’ve seen in America. One day I looked up, and there was ‘America’s Little Black Book’ from the notes.”
According to “America’s Little Black Book,” many of the problems that plague African-American communities (high unemployment, poverty, crime, poor test scores) are the result of the economic and mental impact of slavery on these communities. Because African-Americans have not accepted their true identity as the descendants of slaves, Shelton believes, they are as lost as their emancipated forefathers were nearly 150 years ago. “America’s Little Black Book” says: “When slaves were turned out into the world they were ignorant, alienated, and destitute and, as of yet, none of these inherited conditions have been adequately addressed or debated. Therefore, it’s common sense to conclude that they have never been corrected. Still, the average American chooses to believe that the descendants of those abandoned slaves aren’t still slaves …”
Shelton was born in Georgia in 1937, but his mother moved the family to Louisville when he was still a child. He’s been a successful entrepreneur, operating businesses in Louisville and Detroit, and gathering material for his movement along the way.
The great revelation that ignited the American Slave Movement came to Shelton in 1983 when The Louisville Minority Business Development Group named him Minority Contractor of the Year. “I got this prize and all of this,” Shelton recalls. “When I looked around, I was the only black person there. I had the Minority award but all the other minorities in the room were different colors: Chinese, Asians, mostly white women, and some white men posing as black folks. It was really an eye-opening experience to realize that minority was not my birthright. Minority is just legal terminology to transfer money and things like that in the industrial arena.”
At the time, Shelton owned a manufacturing business that worked with construction companies like John Deere. He currently has two main pursuits: American Slaves Inc. and Mr. Silk’s Liquors, the liquor store that sits at the corner of Hodge and Muhammad Ali, a block from the First Church of American Slaves. Shelton, whose nickname is Mr. Silk, says he founded three companies in 1987: a real estate firm, a screen-printing shop, and the liquor store. He vowed that whichever took off would fund the American Slave Movement. The real estate firm and screen-printing shop are out of business, but the liquor store is doing well.
“Ain’t many people in this world that owns a liquor store and a church at the same time,” Shelton says. “The liquor store is paying all the bills. The liquor store is buying the building (for the church). The liquor is sustaining the movement because that’s the way God ordained it. I explained that to these ministers. They say, ‘You own a liquor store.’ I say, ‘I own a legal business that is sponsoring the American Slave Movement.’”
Mr. Silk’s embodies some of the best and worst aspects of African-American culture. Outside, there are advertisements for the First Church of America Slaves and “America’s Little Black Book,” along with a “Hope” poster from President Barack Obama’s campaign and a sign that says “Slavery Reparations, Apply Inside.” But inside the store, customers have to order from the other side of bullet-proof glass, and there are several large cut-outs of the rapper Snoop Dogg pitching Colt 45 Blast, a premium malt liquor with fruit flavoring. In one he is dressed in a white fur coat with a scantily clad Caucasian woman on his side.
Shelton lives above Mr. Silk’s, which also serves as the official ASI headquarters. On the day I visited, American Slaves Inc. vice president Dereck Barber and Howard Bedford, a member of the First Church of American Slaves, were working behind the counter. Both men are 31-year-old descendants of American slaves.
Barber stands out from the other ASI members because he is college-educated. He graduated from duPont Manual High School and attended Dillard College, a historically black institution where he studied history and speech communications. After a stint in the Navy, Barber came home to Louisville in 2009. He became involved with ASI following a heated discussion with one of its representatives.
“He said I should read ‘America’s Little Black Book,’ but I hesitated because I thought it was going to be some of the same stuff (other black leaders talk about),” Barber says. “Then I read it and wrestled with it.”
After talking to Shelton in person, Barber became a convert and quickly rose to second-in-command. He manages the liquor store, plans ASI fundraisers, and attends meetings as an ASI representative. Barber says operating a liquor store is just an initial phase of ASI’s plan. As the group grows, he doesn’t think the store will be necessary, but for now, the movement is dependent on the money Mr. Silk’s generates.
“Rally’s is around the corner, and they never gave shit to the community,” Barber says. “At least the liquor store produced a church.”
The irony is that Shelton does not consider himself religious. He started a church because “black people might not go to a descendants of slaves meeting but they’ll go to church.”
Although the church offers a traditional religious service with a trained minister, it is rather unorthodox in other ways. Every Thursday, for example, the First Church of American Slaves hosts a hip-hop open mic that draws a young crowd.
“This has to be a different church …” Shelton says. “What I insist is that our people be told the truth about who they are. We believe if people know who they are they’ll know what to do to better themselves.”
In recent years, Shelton has lobbied the city to recognize “descendant of American slaves” as a designated minority group. Specifically, he wants that term recognized in the bidding process for public projects, such as the proposal to build two new bridges between Louisville and Southern Indiana. Ultimately, ASI would like to be the official representative of the entire population of descendants of slaves throughout the country, negotiating reparation deals with companies and eventually even the U.S. government. For ASI, however, reparations doesn’t mean cash handouts, but rather funds for economic development and education in African-American communities, as well as capital to start businesses.
Shelton’s American Renaissance Plan, as described in “America’s Little Black Book,” has three steps to uplifting black America: awakening, identifying the fact they are descendants of American slaves, and litigation. The litigation would be two-fold: Shelton would like to hold a mock trial prosecuting America for slavery, and he would like to use Slavery Disclosure Laws to get money from companies that profited from slavery. In the early 2000s, the state of California and several cities around the country passed laws requiring institutions doing business with the municipalities to disclose any connection they had with slavery. Since then, Bank of America, Wachovia, and J.P. Morgan have disclosed that their predecessor banks took slaves as collateral on loans or gave loans to bring Africans to America.
In 2003, Brown University formed a committee to write a report on its own connection to slavery. The school’s founder was a slaveholder, as were many of the school’s early financial backers. There are cases where individuals have filed suit against corporations for their role in slavery, including one in 2002 in which a New Jersey lawyer sued 15 companies involved in her grandfather’s bondage in South Carolina. Other reparations groups are seeking a financial settlement with the U.S. government similar to the multi-billion dollar agreement signed between Israel and West Germany in 1952 because of the Holocaust and the use of Jews as slaves.
Shelton wants to pursue African-American reparations in a way that will not hamper the U.S. economy. He believes some corporations would be willing to make payments to ASI, as the representative of the descendants of American Slaves, both as a way to alleviate any legal obligation that may arise from these slavery disclosures and to avoid paying taxes on excess funds. “The way America is set up, you’re only allowed to make so much,” Shelton says. “After you make a certain amount the government wants a certain percentage. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to give my money to the government.’ Then you have to give it to a charitable organization. That’s where ASI comes in.”
According to Shelton, what is holding ASI and the American Slave Movement back are the African-American leaders he refers to as “gatekeepers.” He believes the money is out there to be had for education and capital for the descendants of American slaves, but these leaders are afraid to claim it because it would require them to accept their true identity. Shelton says many Louisville ministers and political leaders have shunned ASI because they are uncomfortable with the idea that slavery is the source of all the problems in the black community.
“(State Sen.) Gerald Neal, me and him are having a terrible battle,” Shelton says. “It got kind of ugly. He threw me out of his office. Our leaders are Uncle Toms, pure and simple. I wrote the book, ‘Gatekeepers.’ I updated it from Uncle Toms of old to gatekeepers of today.”
Sen. Neal tells LEO Weekly he did in fact ask Shelton to leave his office. Prior to that meeting, Neal had agreed to speak at an ASI meeting, but he claims Shelton wanted him to get more involved. Although Neal declined to join the movement, he says the suggestion that he’s not interested in uplifting the black community is insulting, especially since as a youth he was arrested for taking part in civil rights marches.
“Keep in mind that most legislation is not race specific, however, it serves the African-American community as well … education measures, appropriations for various services, etc.,” Neal says. “I represent approximately 105,000 people, and if my information is correct, about 53 percent are African-American.” He goes on to say, “I do not spend my time criticizing others. It is generally not helpful, and it offers no solutions.”
During my first visit to the First Church of American Slaves, I saw something that surprised me: a white man. William Warner is a local defense lawyer who has been involved with the racial reconciliation movement for decades. He is a fan of conservative black commentator Shelby Steele and South African minister Desmond Tutu. Two years ago, Warner joined the American Slaves Inc. board of directors after reading “America’s Little Black Book.” A mutual friend introduced him to Shelton.
“Mr. Shelton himself is what you call a dynamic personality,” Warner says. “I read his book and then we sat down for breakfast. I became convinced that his theory about what is holding down black people had some merit. If we don’t tell each other the truth, we’re not able to talk, to tell each other what is in our heart.”
Warner, 77, was born in Pennsylvania but raised in Memphis where he saw racial discrimination on a daily basis.
“One of the reasons I choose to live in Louisville, despite the resistance that Mr. Shelton can get, is that this city has always been open to racial justice,” Warner says. “People generally get along with each other. Mr. Shelton has hit upon something that has a lot of truth and validity to it. The basis of the movement is to recognize what is holding black people down and deal with it. Not just give them money.”
ASI has nine board members, two of them white men. The other is Jim Halvatgis, a Prospect area businessman. “America’s Little Black Book” is actually dedicated to Halvatgis, whom Shelton calls his mentor and credits with showing him how America really works. In several conversations, Shelton refers to Halvatgis and others as our “white city fathers” who have helped him through the years. He says these “white city fathers” were the reason he started the American Slave Movement in Louisville rather than Detroit, which was his original idea. White Americans are welcome in the American Slave Movement, Shelton says, because they have a responsibility due to the advantages they’ve gained from African-American enslavement and segregation.
Since childhood, Shelton says he’s struggled with issues of race and finding a proper identity.
“I’ve always had white friends, even when I was little,” he recalls. “I had white friends, and I asked my mother, ‘Why are we treated different than they are?’ I knew we were treated different. They could come to our house, but when I went to play with them, I couldn’t go in their house. There were certain rules that were unspoken.”
It’s a memory that resonated growing up, eventually setting him on his current path as leader of the American Slave Movement.
“Most people are just, ‘OK, I’m black and I’m proud’ and that’s it,” Shelton says. “I guess I’m a little bit ahead of most people because my proper identity has always plagued me.”