Sutton E. Griggs

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Sutton E. Griggs
Sutton E Griggs.jpg
Portrait of Sutton E. Griggs published in 1901
Born June 19, 1872
Chatfield, Texas
Died January 2, 1933
Houston, Texas
Occupation novelist, minister, and theologian
Nationality American
Genre African American literature, western fiction
Subject Social Justice, Racial Segregation and Integration
Notable works Imperium in Imperio, The Hindered Hand
Spouse Emma Williams
Relatives Allen R. Griggs (father), Emma Hodge Griggs (mother), Eunice Griggs (daughter)

Sutton Elbert Griggs (June 19, 1872 - January 2, 1933) was an African-American author, Baptist minister, and social activist. He is best known for his novel Imperium in Imperio, a utopian work that envisions a separate African-American state within the United States.


Griggs was born Elbert Sutton Griggs (he later changed the order of his given names) in 1872 in Chatfield, Texas, to the Rev. Allen R. and Emma Hodge Griggs.[1] His father, a former Georgia slave, became a prominent Baptist minister and founder of the first black newspaper and high school in Texas. Sutton worked closely with his father on the National Baptist Convention's Education Committee. He wrote frequently later in life of his deep respect for his parents' characters and accomplishments.[2]

Sutton Griggs attended Bishop College in Marshall, Texas and Richmond Theological Seminary. Upon graduation, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Berkley, Virginia. There he married Emma Williams, a teacher, in 1897. In 1899, he became pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Nashville and corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Convention.

Griggs was a prolific author, writing more than thirty books and pamphlets in his lifetime and selling them door-to-door or at the revival meetings at which he preached. His first novel, Imperium in Imperio, published in 1899, is his most famous. In 1901, Griggs founded the Orion Publishing Company to sell books to the African American market. None of his four subsequent novels achieved the success of Imperium in Imperio, but he produced a steady stream of social and religious tracts, as well as an autobiography.

An admirer of W. E. B. Du Bois and a supporter of the Niagara Movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Griggs was strongly influenced by contemporary social theory. He believed that the practice of social virtues alone could advance a culture and lead to economic success.[3] The more radical ideas expressed in his novels, particularly Imperium in Imperio, have led him to be sometimes characterized as a militant separatist in the mold of Marcus Garvey. During his lifetime, however, his integrationist philosophy and courting of white philanthropy earned him the scorn of self-help advocates.[4]

Griggs's careers in both the church and social welfare sphere were active and itinerant. In Houston, he helped establish the National Civil and Religious Institute. In 1914, he founded the National Public Welfare League. From 1925 to 1926, he served as president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, which his father helped found. His longest tenure—19 years as pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Memphis—saw him act on his belief in the social mission of churches, providing the only swimming pool and gymnasium then available to African Americans in the city. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 stripped the Tabernacle of investment funds and led to its bankruptcy. Griggs returned to Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas, then to a brief pastorship in Houston. Shortly after resigning that post in 1933, he died in Houston, and was buried in Dallas.[1]


Title page of the first edition of Imperium in Imperio

Griggs's first novel follows a familiar formula: two childhood friends are separated by wealth, education, skin tone, and political outlook; one is a militant and one an integrationist. A traumatic incident galvanizes the more moderate friend into action, and the two work together to redress the injustice.

Imperium in Imperio (1899) follows this plotline with a startling twist: the revelation of an African American "empire within an empire," a shadow government complete with a Congress based in Waco, Texas. The light-skinned and more militant Bernard Belgrave who has been hand-picked to serve as president advocates a takeover of the Texas state government, while the dark-skinned Belton Piedmont argues for assimilation and cooperation. Bernard reluctantly has Belton executed as a traitor only after Belton resigns from the Imperium (an act that is tantamount to suicide), leaving the potentially violent and unstable Bernard in control of the Imperium as the novel ends.[5]

The Hindered Hand, written in 1905 as a direct reply to Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots, contains graphic accounts of sexual violence and lynching, and was among the most popular African-American novels of the period.

With a stiff prose style and long rhetorical passages punctuated by melodramatic events, Griggs' novels are not models of "literary" styling. However, for the African-American audiences for which they were written, the novels provided a rare opportunity to read about the political and social issues that preoccupied them, including violence, racism, and the pursuit of political and economic justice.

Although he outsold more famous contemporaries, Griggs remained largely invisible in literary histories of the time. A re-issue of Imperium by the Arno Press in 1969 revived interest in Griggs, and several editions have been published since. Imperium has been embraced as an important addition to the history of utopian literature, western fiction, and African-American literature.


Selected works[edit]

  • Imperium in Imperio, 1899
  • Overshadowed, 1901
  • Unfettered, 1902
  • The Hindered Hand; or, The Reign of the Repressionist, 1905
  • Pointing the Way, 1908
  • Wisdom's Call, 1911
  • The Story of My Struggles, 1914
  • Guide to Racial Greatness or The Science of Collective Efficiency, 1923


  1. ^ a b Coleman, Finnie D. (2007). Sutton E. Griggs and the Struggle Against White Supremacy. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-1-57233-480-9. Retrieved June 12, 2010. 
  2. ^ Literary Encyclopedia entry by Harish Chander, Shaw University.
  3. ^ James W. Byrd and David M. Tucker, "Griggs, Sutton Elbert", Handbook of Texas Online (accessed June 23, 2008). Published by the Texas State Historical Association
  4. ^ "The Battle That Raged", Issues & Views, Fall 1996.
  5. ^ Steven G. Kellman, "Imagining Texas as Black Utopia", The Texas Observer, February 27, 2004.


External links[edit]