Thomas H. Branch
Branch in 1902
|Born||December 24, 1856|
Jefferson County, Missouri, US
|Died||November 24, 1924 (aged 67)|
Los Angeles, California, US
|Occupation||Preacher and missionary|
|Known for||First African American to visit British Central Africa|
Thomas H. Branch (December 24, 1856 – November 24, 1924) was an American Seventh-day Adventist missionary to the British Central Africa Protectorate. He worked in a variety of roles for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church and serving as a missionary in Colorado. Branch was selected for service in Africa in 1902 and travelled there with his wife Henrietta and three of their children. En-route he was detained for nine days by the British consul at Chinde, Portuguese Mozambique who was concerned that an African American missionary would cause insubordination among Africans in the colony. After his release Branch entered British Central Africa and established a mission station at Cholo in the Shire Highlands. He served as superintendent of the station, with Joseph Booth running the administration and Branch's wife and daughters working as teachers.
Branch was characterised as militant by the local press, though he opposed Booth's Ethiopianist aims. The SDA agreed to withdraw Booth and Branch after the British raised concerns, Branch's replacement was a white man considered more acceptable to the British. After a brief period in South Africa the Branch family returned to the United States where he worked with the African American communities in Denver and Philadelphia. Henrietta died in 1913 and Branch afterwards married Lucy Baylor. She left him after Branch refused to follow the teachings of Alonzo T. Jones and he moved to California, where he lived out his final years with his daughter Mabel.
Thomas H. Branch was born in December 24, 1856, in Jefferson County, Missouri; his parents were both slaves. He was educated at H. M. Van Slyke's school for freed slaves and afterwards worked as a porter, cook and steward with the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Branch married Henrietta Paterson at Kansas City on December 7, 1876. A daughter, Mabel, was born in Wyandotte County, Kansas on April 1, 1878. Later that year the family moved to Denver, Colorado. Three sons were born there: Thomas in June 1887, Paul in March 1891 and Robert in January 1896.
Branch rose to become a brakeman of the railroad's trains and, after negotiating with his employer to have Sundays off work, became a lay preacher. His daughter Mabel attended West Denver High School and became the first African American teacher in Colorado. Branch became a missionary with the Seventh-day Adventist church (SDA) and, in 1901, was sent to Pueblo, Colorado as a missionary. He established the first SDA African American congregation in the city.
In 1902 the SDA church selected Branch as a missionary to the British Central Africa Protectorate, in what is now Malawi. He was the first African American missionary for the SDA in Africa and probably the first sent overseas by the church. In preparation for the mission Henrietta received medical training and Branch was ordained by the church on May 22, 1902. Branch, who was considered old for a missionary posting, and his family had been recommended for the mission by the church's Colorado Conference, which provided financial support to the mission, which was the church's first in the Protectorate.
Branch, Henrietta, Mabel, Paul and Robert boarded a ship at New York on June 4, 1902 for the United Kingdom. The family arrived in London on June 12 and stayed at Duncombe Hall, which was used at the time by the SDA. The family of Joseph Booth also stayed at the hall. The Booths would accompany the Branch family to Africa and help run the mission there. The missionaries left London on June 27 for Southampton where they boarded a vessel for Chinde, Portuguese Mozambique.
Upon arrival at Chinde Branch was detained for nine days by the British consul there. The consul feared that educated African American missionaries would encourage independent thought and insubordination among the Africans and have an adverse effect upon the stability of the protectorate. Booth spent three days trying to persuade the consul that Branch posed no threat. The Branches also experienced discrimination from local Adventists who refused to give them room in their houses, forcing them to take rooms in a hotel. Branch was eventually granted permission to continue and he and his family left Chinde on August 14 and arrived at Cholo in the Shire Highlands, the site of the mission station, on August 29. In doing so he became the first African American to visit British Central Africa.
The mission station at Cholo had been purchased by the SDA from the Seventh Day Baptists, with whom Booth had previously been affiliated. The station was named Plainfield after Plainfield, New Jersey where the SDA had their headquarters. Branch was appointed superintendent and had responsibility for the religious and educational work, while Booth looked after the administrative tasks. Henrietta and Mabel worked as teachers at the mission, which opened a school for 25 students in the first week of operation, with lessons being held initially in the open air. By 1907 the school had expanded to 75 pupils and two outreach schools had been established a number of miles away. At the end of Branch's tenure at the mission the school had 112 pupils. Branch picked up the local language and was well liked by his congregation, he formally founded the first Adventist Church in the protectorate on July 14, 1906..
Branch protested against the mistreatment of Africans in the protectorate and because of this was characterised as a militant in the local press. He also quickly began to disagree with Booth's Ethiopianist goals. The colonial government's fears were heightened after the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion in South Africa and the SDA, keen to maintain good relations, agreed to withdraw the Booths. Booth was replaced by Joseph H Watson, but he died soon afterwards, leaving the Branch family to run the mission alone. Despite his opposition to Ethiopianism and his general conservatism, the SDA, keen to reassure the colonial government of their loyalty, replaced Branch with a white American Joel C Rogers. Rogers, with experience of missionary work in South Africa and attitudes towards Africans that were more in line with those of Europeans, was considered more acceptable by the government of the protectorate.
Branch and his family were in South Africa by September 1907. They found their sons were prevented from attending the Adventist schools in the state as they were segregated for whites only. The family returned to the United States in 1908 as Henrietta suffered from fevers.
Upon his return to the United States Branch was placed in charge of the SDA's work with African Americans in Denver. He moved to Philadelphia in 1910 where he set up the African American SDA church in the city.  This church developed into the Ebenezer SDA Church and established almost a dozen daughter churches in the city. Branch and Henrietta, together with With Dr James Hyatt, lectured and distributed pamplets in the city. Henrietta died on April 4, 1913, badly affecting Thomas who was himself in poor health due to the aftereffects of Malaria. Their sons had been unable to secure an advanced education and joined the army.
Branch afterwards married Lucy Baylor, who was much younger than him and had a 5 year old daughter. Baylor left him shortly afterwards when Branch refused to join her in following the teachings of Alonzo T. Jones. Branch moved to Watts, California as a preacher before the SDA church reluctantly approved a retirement package for him. In retirement Branch lived with Mabel's family in Los Angeles where he died on November 24, 1924.