Across the Color Line

Mabel Broome, the first African-American officer in the Army’s Central Territory, went to the slums of Chicago and courageously spread the gospel in the face of bigotry.

Mabel Broome

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a former slave and subsequent educator, author, orator, advisor to presidents and leader in the African American community. He once said, “I have always had the greatest respect for the work of The Salvation Army, especially because I have noted that it draws no color line in religion.”

The Salvation Army has a long history of pushing religious conventions, with an emphasis on placing women and people of color in leadership positions. 

The Army was established in London during the same year the American Civil War ended: 1865. Slavery had been abolished, but equality was far from reality. One of the Army’s early ministry efforts in America was carried out in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1872, when a recent immigrant and Salvation Army convert named James Jermy joined forces with James Fackler, a black Methodist preacher. Their ministry grew rapidly, and they opened five outposts. The ministry later dissolved due to health and financial issues.

The Army officially opened its work in the United States in 1880, when George Railton and seven young women, the “Hallelujah Lassies,” landed in New York’s Battery Park. The Salvation Army commissioner at the time, Frank Smith, denounced the color line when he said the Army “must be among the first Christian communities of America who will faithfully and wholly break down the wall of partition separating the white from the colored, whom the Lord has brought from a common captivating bondage.”

Mabel Broome was drawn to the Army in the early 1900s by the fervor of its preachers and its relentless social outreach. She became a soldier of the Chicago #3 Corps. On July 20, 1915, after six months of training, Broome became the first African American officer in the Army’s Central Territory.

When Broome was assigned to Chicago #2 Slums, she took on the tough duties of the “slum sisters.” Her duties included visiting houses, scrubbing floors, caring for new mothers and their babies, mending clothes, distributing food and ministering to the sick and shut–ins.  

Slum-sister officers were also responsible for nightly worship services, open–air evangelistic meetings and visits to brothels and saloons to share the gospel and sell the War Cry. They often faced unresponsive crowds and open hostility. For Broome, in a highly segregated country, these duties must have been extremely difficult.

In 1918, Broome resigned as an officer, likely because of delicate health. She later returned to the work and accepted a reassignment to the Army’s USA Eastern Territory, where she served at the Boston Rescue Home until her early death in 1930.

— Sources: http://multiculturalministriescentral.org,  “A Gideon of the Chicago Slums” by Karen Young.


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