During the heights of the 1930’s Great Depression, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux rose as one of the most prominent African-American radio evangelists, in the history of Pentecostalism. What many do not realize is that his story began near Williamsburg, Virginia, my home town.
Michaux was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1885. During World War I, Michaux was able to use his business acumen successfully, to obtain contracts to supply food to American troops. By 1917, Michaux had moved his family and business to Hopewell, Virginia, but he was unable to find a church, that fit well with him. Michaux had been drawn into the burgeoning Holiness movement, but he felt that more could be done to advance the Gospel, so he then moved more in Pentecostal circles.
Michaux returned to Newport News in 1919, following the war, and began a series of tent revivals, that appealed to many local African Americans. But Michaux bristled against newer Segregation laws in Virginia, and was sent to prison. The racial conflict spurred Michaux onwards, to expand his preaching ministry for the Gospel and against racism, and establish churches. After leaving prison, he moved his ministry operations up to Washington, D.C.
In 1929, Michaux persuaded a local radio station to broadcast his evangelistic services, called the “Happiness Hour.” When the radio station was bought by the CBS Radio Network in 1932, Michaux was catapulted into the national spotlight, with perhaps as many as 25 million radio listeners. He even ventured into international radio ministry with the BBC, in the mid-1930s, thus establishing him as a pioneer, in global radio outreach ministry.
According to the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, in 1936, Michaux purchased a 500 acre tract of land, located along the James River, just a few miles from Jamestown, Virginia, thus creating the “National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America.” Locals in Williamsburg know it is the “Gospel Spreading Farm.” When the Colonial Parkway was expanded to connect Williamsburg and Jamestown in the 1950s, the federal government secured a right-of-way, along the river, from the Gospel Spreading Farm, to complete the road project.
Michaux’s vision was to create a type of cooperative farming community, which would serve as a haven for African-Americans, offering educational and evangelistic programs. Michaux believed that a coming economic crisis, an order of magnitude worse than the Great Depression, would severely cripple the American economy. He believed that the farm would become a refuge for thousands of African Americans, to survive such an apocalypse.
Neither the apocalypse, nor the full vision of a highly-functioning, cooperative community, ever materialized. The national influence of Michaux was further eclipsed by a new rising star, in the African-American community, Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to the New York Times, Michaux was highly suspicious of Martin Luther King. Michaux did not believe that King’s vision, enacted through protest marches and sit-ins, was wholly inline with Christian values. Instead, Michaux believed that the crisis of racism in the American culture, could only be resolved through evangelistic preaching, and not through social protests. Michaux even embraced the idea that Martin Luther King was secretly a Communist, and Michaux at times cooperated with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, to undermine King’s influence.
Michaux was fearless and bold in his preaching. One story from the mid-20th century segregation era relates that Michaux preached at an “all-white, KKK-infested congregation” in Baltimore, Maryland. But his preaching was so effective that a white klansman was converted and joined a branch of Michaux’s African American Church of God, in Baltimore.
Michaux died in 1968. The Gospel Spreading Farm is still in operation, but a dispute in Michaux’s local church, over the land management, led to a split in the community, that for some remains unresolved. The Gospel Spreading Farm is quietly tucked away at the very end of Treasure Island Road, a spur off of Lake Powell Road. Yet residents of Williamsburg will be most familiar with the legacy of Michaux, when they see Oleta Coach Lines buses traveling up and down the roads, surrounding the Williamsburg area. Oleta is family owned and operated, through some church members, who grew up under the shadow of Michaux’s influence.
Below is a film clip from one of Michaux’s evangelist radio sessions, singing his signature song, “Happy Am I.”