Image from unknown 1937 university yearbook. Caption reads “Andrew P. Watson | A.B., M.A., Fisk University | Professor of History”
African American, Ethnography
Andrew Polk Watson
Andrew Polk Watson collected and analyzed one of the earliest and most significant collections of African American religious conversion narratives in the 20th century. Born in Franklin, Tennessee, Watson attended Fisk University’s graduate program after serving in the army in World War I and then briefly studied at the University of Chicago. After graduating from Fisk with his M.A. in anthropology in 1932, Watson joined the anthropology and sociology faculty of Wiley College in Marshall, Texas from 1935 to 1966. He was a beloved teacher and rose to serve as Dean of Social Sciences for over thirty years at the college.
During his stint at Fisk as a graduate student, he became anthropologist Paul Radin’s graduate assistant and collaborated with Radin in a project to collect personal narratives, life stories, and religious experiences from slavery and the years following the Civil War of elderly formerly enslaved African Americans. The project was conducted between 1927 and 1929. While Radin attributed its success to Watson’s knowledge, and while Watson collected most of the narratives in the collection, his contribution has been obscured over time. As an African American familiar with Black communities and culture in Middle Tennessee, Watson was able to navigate racial boundaries and gain entry into these communities, building the rapport that enabled him to ask intimate questions about religious beliefs and practices, which differed from his own religious practices. Allowing the narratives to stand on their own, Watson ensured that in this work with Radin, African Americans were at the center of their own stories. This work demonstrated how Christianity was transformed by African Americans through an examination of their religious conversion stories. These narratives were groundbreaking because they presented African Americans as reflexive human beings with intellectual and spiritual capacity. They countered the prevailing stereotypes of Black people used to uphold white supremacy and racial dominance during slavery and segregation.
Watson and Radin collected these narratives at the same time as Ophelia Settle Egypt worked with Charles S. Johnson at Fisk, nearly a decade before the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s. Charles S. Johnson decided to publish the narratives of both projects at Fisk University. Watson’s research in the book, God Struck Me Dead (1945), was published at the same time as the publication of Ophelia Settle Egypt’s ex-slave research in the book, Unwritten History (1945) to provide a more complete picture of the experiences of formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.
Among Watson’s publications are:
Watson, Andrew Polk. Primitive Religion among Negroes in Tennessee. M.A. thesis, Fisk University (1932)
Johnson, Clifton, ed. God Struck Me Dead: Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves. (1945/1969)