Griggs, Sutton Elbert (1872–1933)

By: James W. Byrd and David M. Tucker

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 27, 2020

Sutton Elbert Griggs, novelist and minister, was born at Chatfield, Texas, to Rev. Allen R. Griggs in 1872. His father was a former Georgia slave who had become a prominent Baptist minister in Texas. After graduating from Dallas public schools and Bishop College in Marshall (1890), Griggs attended Richmond Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, between 1890 and 1893. On May 10, 1897, he married Emma J. Williams of Portsmouth, Virginia. Upon graduating from seminary Griggs took a pastorate in Berkley, Virginia. It was here that he wrote his first novel, Imperium In Imperio (1899), which may be the first Black nationalist novel. Over the course of his career Griggs wrote more than a dozen books, including five novels, five social tracts, his autobiography, a short biography of John L. Webb, and The Kingdom Builder's Manual (1924), a booklet of biblical quotations. At his expense he published and distributed these works, which were generally written for "the aspiring classes of the Black south." Although virtually unknown among Whites, his writings were generally read by African Americans. Griggs wrote in a very direct style that was somewhat stiff and formal. He was one of the few Southern members of the Niagra movement, a civil rights group which had an outspoken platform based on the issue of racial and social justice and which eventually evolved into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Although he has often been characterized as a Black nationalist based on the plot of his first novel, this may be an overgeneralization since his subsequent novels do not contain this theme. In Imperium in Imperio Griggs chronicles the social and political injustice to which Blacks are subjected. He describes the meeting of the Imperium in Imperio, a secret political organization in Waco, Texas, composed of Blacks who are frustrated with the social and political status of Blacks in America. In the novel the leader of the organization argues for the violent takeover of the state of Texas. Neither this work nor any subsequent novel by Griggs received widespread distribution. Although succeeding Griggs novels, Overshadowed (1901), Unfettered (1902), The Hindered Hand (1905), and Pointing the Way (1908), are deemed "less militant" by some scholars, they received poor circulation. One reason may be that many of Griggs's philosophies on race relations were in direct conflict with the philosophies espoused by Booker T. Washington and other popular Black leaders of the day. Griggs's views on improving the status of Blacks were influenced by several contemporary social theorists, including Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Benjamin Kidd. Griggs felt that society evolved from lower to higher forms by adopting "Christian virtues." In his later view Blacks needed only to practice Christian virtues (love, honesty, patience, etc.) in order to improve their socioeconomic status. Members and organizations of the Black community would have to work together in order to instill these traits in the race. Griggs outlined these views in the social tracts that he wrote and in lectures he made in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.

Beginning in 1895 Griggs spent twelve years as pastor of the First Baptist Church in East Nashville, Tennessee. He then moved to Memphis, where for nineteen years he was the pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. There he undertook an ambitious plan to expand the services of the church. In his words: "Religion ought do more than help a man reach heaven when he dies. It ought to help him to live in this world. It ought to help people meet every problem of life." Griggs was active in the National Baptist Convention, where he encouraged the educational development of young ministers. He was also president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary from 1925 to 1926. In 1930, after making various additions, including a swimming pool and an employment bureau, the church ran into financial problems and was foreclosed. Griggs returned to Texas to serve as pastor of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, where his father had previously been the minister. He later resigned the pastorate to start a Baptist institute for religious and civic affairs in Houston but died on January 2, 1933, before realizing this project.

James W. Byrd, "Five Early Afro-American Novels," Southwest Review 57 (Summer 1972). Dallas Morning News, December 2, 1990. Robert E. Fleming, "Sutton E. Griggs: Militant Black Novelist," Phylon 34 (March 1973). Hugh M. Gloster, "Sutton E. Griggs: Novelist of the New Negro," Phylon 4 (Fourth Quarter 1943). Sutton E. Griggs, The Story of My Struggles (Memphis: National Public Welfare League, 1914). Lester C. Lamon, Black Tennesseans, 1900–1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977). Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982). David M. Tucker, Black Pastors and Leaders: Memphis, 1819–1972 (Memphis State University Press, 1975).


  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Fiction
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Authors and Writers
  • Religion
  • Baptist

Time Periods:

  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James W. Byrd and David M. Tucker, “Griggs, Sutton Elbert,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 28, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
October 27, 2020

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