Surrounded by “oriental motif and incense,” interwar-Harlem spiritual leader Dorothy “Madame Fu Futtam” Matthews often stood happily outside the Buddhist Universal Holy Temple of Tranquility (BUHTT) doors as parishioners filed into the temple. Born in 1906, the kimono-wearing and self-proclaimed fortune-teller established the four-story spiritual center with her husband, Sufi Abdul Hamid. An imposing figure who stood six feet tall and weighed 225 pounds, Hamid, whose real name was Eugene Brown, was one Harlem’s most colorful religious and political figures. Hamid was the former lover of well-known 1920s Harlem numbers game queen Madame Stephanie St. Clair and a popular street stepladder orator. Contributing to Harlem’s blossoming cultural and political terrain, Hamid and other Black intellectuals used public space as a testing ground to disseminate radical political and religious ideas. Standing on busy Harlem thoroughfares before large crowds of Black New Yorkers, Hamid, often wearing a turban, a black- and crimson-lined cape, a green velvet blouse, and black riding boots, articulated theories about religion and racial struggle. He encouraged audiences in the 1930s to participate in national Black economic protests that championed “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.”
In 1938, Hamid and Matthews established the BUHTT, a “Buddhist temple based on the teachings of all the sages and prophets of the ages. The definite purpose is to surmount untested faith and belief with sound knowledge similar to that practiced by the yogis of India, Tibet, and Japan.” Under the tutelage of the religious couple, the over one hundred members of BUHTT studied mediumship, spirit possession and reincarnation, and the philosophies of Gautama Buddha. BUHTT teachings also went beyond temple walls; Matthews and Hamid became short-lived phonograph preachers, bringing to listeners nightly half-hour sermons about racial advancement and Buddhism as a personal journey toward spiritual growth and empowerment.
Sufi Hamid, Dorothy Matthews, and other early twentieth-century African Americans’ subscriptions to non-Christian religions, as well as to a wide variety of occult spiritual activities and practices, were not uncommon. Varying connections to institutional religions like Christianity and supernatural practices such as Conjure, Hoodoo, and root work were vital to the lived experiences of African Americans. Spiritual worship was part of African Americans’ broad and collective dream of creating and living autonomous lives. Through religion, men and women embraced sacred realms that encouraged intellectual and emotional growth. At the same time, personal connections to institutional religions and esoteric rituals expanded ideas about strategically navigating environments and systems invested in the delimitation, containment, and exploitation of Blacks. In the face of ubiquitous inequalities and anti-Black violence, spiritual cultivation became paramount to African Americans’ emotional survival and stability and their ability to transform their day-to-day worlds.
Religious and spiritual practices were not only about nurturing the mind, body, and spirit. For many early twentieth-century working-class African Americans, Black metaphysical religion served as a route toward exploring diverse economic and labor opportunities. Religion created space for spiritual leaders, parishioners, and even purported confidence men and women to address labor exclusion and constrained labor markets as well as to develop entrepreneurial opportunities. Religion also became a path for some men and women to participate in global underground amusements and illicit economies that captured Americans’ imaginations and pocketbooks. Unsurprisingly, faith was used to pilfer “thousands of dollars from the pockets of the unwary in all kinds of ways.”1
Notwithstanding some African Americans’ public critiques and commentaries about esoteric and occult customs and beliefs, many Black men and women identified as supernatural consultants and entrepreneurs. Adopting professional monikers such as “Master of Science,” “Professor,” “High Priestess,” or “Madame,” working men and women, those relegated to low-wage menial labor, fashioned themselves as crystal ball gazers, tarot card readers, hypnotists, numerologists, and magical healers and practitioners, offering curious and impoverished customers guidance on money, love and friendship, detractors, and health and wellness. Controlling the terms and conditions of their labor, supernatural consultants converted their small tenement apartments and abandoned motion picture houses and lodge halls into temples and chapels, educational centers, and stores. They plastered building walls with business advertisements and announcements about potions, magical candles, and spiritual seances. Imaginative wall posters and the possibility of connecting with those beyond the earthly realm fascinated onlookers.
Writing in 1940 about the “innumerable cults, mystic chapels, and occults shops” in Harlem, Black writer Claude McKay offered an intriguing description of an apartment chapel. Paying the five-dollar admission fee, McKay and other audience members, mostly women, observed burning oils and candles; light blue walls decorated with stars, crescents, crosses, and hearts; and written inscriptions about “Trust and Hope” and “Love and Live,” and that “Life is a Mystery.” An attractive Black priestess dressed in a black-and-white robe and headdress led the ceremony. And for monetary donations, the priestess offered McKay and others private consultations and magical paraphernalia.2 Supernatural entrepreneurs also produced, marketed, and sold occult products. Advertising their wares in the classified sections of Black newspapers or at their churches or small-business shops, occult workers sold homemade and manufactured products. Customers used their hard-earned wages to purchase incenses, candles, and body crystals; dried leaves, figs, and flowers; and jars of lotions, powders, oils, and sprays with evocative labels offering “Strong Love,” “Domination,” “Peaceful Home,” “Money Jackpot,” and “Death unto My Enemy; hoping that such items would ease their minds.
At her Harlem candle shop, fortune-teller and Buddhist Dorothy “Mme. Fu Futtam” Matthews offered clients a variety of intriguing occult products. One of Matthews’s popular selling items was her widely read thirty-five cent dream books. For many readers, dream books such as Matthews’s Madam Fu. Futtam’s Magical-Spiritual Dream Book (1937) and Madam Fu Fu’s Lucky Number Dream Book (1945) served as guides to interpreting dreams and superstitions and as keys to selecting winning gambling numbers. Dream books paired corresponding aspects of life, people’s names, natural and man-made symbols, such as a flower, a fish, or an apple, and every imaginable circumstance that might occur in a dream with a particular number or set of numbers. For instance, Matthews’s dream books suggested that dreaming of a casket “denotes marriage” and that the dreamer should play 427. Competing with other well-known supernatural consultants and dream book authors, such as New Yorkers Carl Z. “Rajah Rabo” Talbot and Herbert Gladstone “Professor Uriah Konje” Parris, Matthews claimed that her dream books were unique. They offered consumers “the most thoroughly practical and authoritative collection of dream and numbers books. Through faith and science we can develop sufficient force to control all that surrounds us, be it poverty, loneliness, business, or love.” The 112-page publication Madam Fu Futtam’s Magical-Spiritual Dream Book also gave readers advice on how to transform their lives. Readers could learn “How to obtain a lover through dreams,” “How to get financial help through the dream process,” and “How to be rid of unharmonious conditions and individuals.”
Black metaphysical religions transformed many African Americans’ lives. Occultism made it possible for clairvoyant Dorothy Matthews to establish a successful supernatural business and candle shop, Brooklyn resident Eunice Medley to use magical products to cure her blindness, and one family to afford rent and groceries for several months through the purchase of a dream book and the selection of winning gambling numbers. Moreover, subscribing to diverse belief systems, attending mysterious apartment seances, and purchasing magic products sustained ingenious freedom projects invested in economic permanency and self-care strategies as well as reinforced long held visions of living in a world, to borrow from Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir Black Boy, “where everything was possible.”