Very early on a Monday morning in September, Reuben Johnson-Bey left his home in Washington Heights to pick up the buffalo fish. As he’s done nearly every September for the last 50 years, he drove north through the south side hunting for deals. He spotted a sale at Fish #1 on Stony Island. “If you see a bargain, capitalize on it,” he likes to say. He bought 30 pounds, taking his time to look for a razorback variety that’s pulled from the Mississippi down in Arkansas and piling them into coolers. “I’m not the only person who’s acquired the buffalo fish over the years, but usually the members do like for me to get it,” he says. “I have a pick for the right type.”
With a trunk full of fish, he continued north to a simple two-story red brick building at Augusta and Hoyne. It’s called Temple No. 9, and it belongs to a small quasi-Islamic sect, the Moorish Science Temple of America. It looks like any of the dozens of Polish churches dotting the Ukrainian Village, with wide red doors, a steepled roof, and a ring of cheery stained-glass windows. On the third week of September, hundreds of Moors, as they call themselves, travel to the temple from around the country for their annual convention. It’s the biggest event of the Moorish calendar, and it’s been held in Chicago since the first one in 1928. That makes Temple No. 9 arguably the most important Moorish temple in the country.
Johnson-Bey unloaded the coolers from his car, unlocked the back door to the kitchen, and got to work cleaning and seasoning the fish, which he would later fry up for the temple’s guests. He worked alone. A tall, slender 72-year-old with thick rose-tinted glasses and a fondness for bow ties, he’s the temple’s Grand Sheik—like a Catholic parish’s priest. Since he retired from the CTA two years ago he gets to the temple hours before services start so he can have the place to himself for a bit. His wife, Cora, used to accompany him until she started showing signs of Alzheimer’s. Now he gets the temple ready for services alone, running the heat when it’s cold and airing out the main room when it’s warm. When there’s snow on the ground he brings his twin ten-year-old granddaughters, Nefertiti and Makeda, and they shovel the sidewalk together.
In recent years about 200 Moors have shown up for each convention, where they elect national leaders, review finances, and hold gala religious services. But Johnson-Bey remembers long-ago conventions when thousands traveled to Chicago and paraded along State Street in elaborate costumes. Temple No. 9 only has 23 active members now, many of them quite old—50 is young there—but they tell stories of the 30s and 40s, when there were 10,000 Moors in Chicago alone. A few members, like Sister Matilda Kern-El, who’s in her late 90s, come from families that were among the first converts when the religion was founded in 1913. One of Johnson-Bey’s four children, Reuben Jr., is actively involved in the temple as its chairman; the others come on big holidays. “Everyone is free to make their own choice,” Johnson-Bey says. It’s the same story with the children of other members who are Reuben’s age. “Islamism is a strict lifestyle, and it’s hard to keep the children interested. Once they turn 18, it seems we don’t see them with the same regularity.”
New members are rare, and Johnson-Bey doesn’t make it easy to join. “We see a lot of visitors who first heard about Islamism while they were institutionalized,” he says. “Now, I have nothing against your past if you are up-front with me and tell me exactly when and why you were in the institution. But I have seen visitors who seem chiefly interested in receiving financial support. There are no handouts here. If you knock on the temple doors and I smell alcohol on the breath, or the eyes aren’t clear, and you’re not properly dressed in slacks and a jacket and preferably a tie, I will ask you to return at a later date.” Temples in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., have kept membership numbers between 50 and 100 by proselytizing in prisons. Temple No. 9 doesn’t do that. “We have true treasures at this temple, sages who hold a wealth of information about the days in the Prophet’s time and this that and the other,” Johnson-Bey says. “I will not allow just anyone to enter these doors.”
Services start at 7:30 on Friday nights. Members know Johnson-Bey is a stickler for punctuality, so if he finds himself sitting alone on the stairs at 8, he knows no one is coming. On some nights it’s just him and Queen Sheba, a woman who lives in an apartment next door. Her family is famous in the organization; her father, Gilbert Cook-Bey, was a first-generation convert who opened the temples in Philadelphia and Detroit. “If all of her family were to show up, they alone would fill this entire building,” Johnson-Bey says. “Some nights Sheba and I sit on the steps, give some of the members a little extra time, what with winter travel and so on and so forth. We get to telling stories of people we both knew, old sages who are no longer with us. Oh my, we do laugh. When it looks like no else is coming, we sing a few hymns, shut the lights off, and go home.”
He’s not worried about what Temple No. 9 will look like down the road, after his stewardship ends. “The Prophet said, ‘Keep my temple doors open, and I will drive them in.’ I intend to hold my end of that bargain, and he will keep his.”
Hope, Indiana, is a tiny farming town about an hour southeast of Indianapolis. It’s always been overwhelmingly white and generally poor, so it’s somewhat incredible that Johnson-Bey’s grandfather, Reuben Frazier, owned not one but two farms there in the early 1920s. He raised corn, beans, spinach, oats, chickens, pigs, sweet peas, and 12 children. “I could listen to grandpa talk all day long,” Johnson-Bey says. “He had a strong voice, and he loved to talk, but he never used any profanity. Now, here was a person you could admire. At the crack of dawn he’d set out to hoe the corn rows, and I’d set out there before grandpa and start pulling up the weeds ahead of him. He never said a word about it, but I knew he noticed. Everything on our table, we raised ourselves. None of my siblings were around grandpa the way I was. They didn’t sweat blood on that farm the way I did.”
Ten years before Johnson-Bey was born, in 1935, his uncle Curtis, who was working as a migrant laborer in Canada, heard about a young black man known as Prophet Drew Ali who’d founded something called the Moorish Science Temple, which preached racial pride. When Curtis got back to the farm, he told the family what he’d heard. This was five years before the Nation of Islam was founded, and the name Marcus Garvey didn’t yet mean anything in Hope. Reuben Frazier looked into it and found out there was a small branch in Indianapolis. He learned that although Drew Ali’s new religion promoted racial pride to a congregation that was entirely black, it didn’t advocate for blacks. In fact, it didn’t believe black people existed at all.
Not much is known about Timothy Drew before he became Prophet Drew Ali. He was born in North Carolina in 1886, possibly to a Cherokee woman and a Moroccan Muslim father, or maybe to freed slaves. A framed picture of him hangs from the gold domed altar of Temple No. 9. He looks tall and thin, unremarkable except for the belted silk robe and tall fez he’s wearing. The Moors’ version of his life story says he left home at 16 and joined a band of Gypsies who took him overseas to Egypt, Morocco, and the Middle East. In Morocco he was approached by the high priest of a mystical Egyptian cult who recognized him as the latest reincarnation in a line of prophets including Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. The priest gave Drew a book that he said was a lost section of the Koran, and when Drew returned to the States he called it the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America. It says, “The last Prophet in these days is Noble Drew Ali, who was prepared divinely in due time by Allah to redeem men from their sinful ways; and to warn them of the great wrath which is sure to come upon the earth.”
Drew claimed that blacks in America were sinfully ignorant of their true racial heritage. They were all descendents of the Moors, a Moroccan Muslim tribe that conquered Spain in the seventh century and spread Islam to Europe. He started dressing in Moorish fashion: fezzes and feathered turbans and silk robes, with a curved sword at his side. When the Moors’ descendents were brought to America in slave ships, he said, white slave owners systematically hid the truth of their noble origins and renamed them “black,” “colored,” and “Negro.” Just as bad, these “so-called blacks” forgot Islam and took up “the false god of the Europeans.” Drew had been dispatched by Allah to eradicate the “slave marks” from blacks in America. His job was to inform them that their true name was not black, colored, or Negro, but Moorish-American, and return them to Islam—or Islamism, as he called it.
This was well before most Americans had even heard the words Islam, Koran, or Muslim. The first documented mosque on American soil wasn’t built till 1915, by Albanian immigrants in Maine. And anyone with a little knowledge of Islam—the one associated with Muhammad and Mecca—who heard of Drew’s Islamism must have been greatly confused. Drew’s followers call themselves Muslims and greet each other by turning their palms forward and saying, “Islam!” They face east when praying, regard Friday as their holy day, and call their god Allah and their leader Prophet. But the similarities to mainstream Islam end there. Moorish-Americans drink alcohol and eat pork. They don’t pray five times a day or travel to Mecca, and their religious book deals more with Jesus than Muhammad, who gets just two mentions toward the end. In his Koran, Drew claimed Marcus Garvey was merely his forerunner, like John the Baptist spreading the gospel before the arrival of Jesus.
At Friday night services at Temple No. 9, men and women sit together on pews facing a podium at the back of the room. Men wear fezzes and suits, women wear silk turbans and modest dresses. Some women wear shalwar khameez, embroidered tunics from the Indian and Pakistani stores along Devon. Drew called all dark- and olive-skinned people around the world Asiatic and and all whites Europeans, and he said Moors ought to show solidarity with other Asiatics.
At the start of the service, members stand and face east to recite the Moorish prayer: “Allah the Father of the universe, the Father of Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom and Justice. Allah is my protector, my guide and my salvation by night and day through his Holy Prophet Drew Ali. Amen.” They return to their seats and a minor sheik or sheikess reads the Divine Constitution and By-Laws, Drew’s rules governing meetings and everyday conduct. They’re simple but long, directing husbands and wives to care for their families, members to come to meetings on time, and everyone to get along. Moors read it out loud at the beginning and end of every function, great or small. Then they sing a hymn or two from the Moorish songbook, which has a lot of familiar Christian tunes reworked for Moorish needs, like “When Drew Ali Goes Marching In.”
The service closes with three of four members stepping up to the podium to read pages of the Holy Koran out loud and give their interpretation. Parts of Drew’s book are taken from obscure Christian texts; the bulk of it is lifted almost word for word from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, published in 1908 by an esoteric Ohio preacher named Levi Dowling. It describes Jesus’s travels in India, Egypt, and Palestine during the 18 years of his life the New Testament doesn’t account for—proof, Moors say, that Jesus and his followers were Asiatic. (Drew did leave out Dowling’s descriptions of the “fair haired, blue eyed” Jesus.) At the podium some members draw parallels between Jesus’s trials and their own lives, talking about how they quit smoking or left a bad marriage or kept their children out of gangs. Listeners from the pews shout out “Preach, brother!” and “Islam!” Johnson-Bey likes to talk about his grandfather—how the family was dirt poor but through hard work and with the Prophet’s guidance, Reuben Frazier pulled the family up.
Drew established his first Moorish congregation in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913, naming it the Canaanite Temple. He was forced to flee soon after, chased out for his teachings on race. For the next 12 years he and his followers kept moving westward, planting congregations in Philadelphia, D.C., and Detroit on their way to their final destination, Chicago. Legend has it that in D.C. Drew got a meeting with Woodrow Wilson and forced the president to hand over the Moorish flag, a red cloth with a green star and crescent supposedly passed down through generations of Moors. Drew said the signers of the Constitution had seized it from Moors who’d been living in America since before colonization and he’d been sent by Allah to reclaim it.
With the flag in hand as proof of his divinity, Drew landed in Chicago in 1925. In a 2002 article in American Quarterly about the Moors’ early days here, historian Susan Nance wrote that “rumors began spreading around Chicago’s South Side that a group of exotically-dressed men had begun initiating altercations with strangers in public.... Some also witnessed these ‘Sheiks’ making agitating speeches at work and at the street universities at Washington Park and on State Street. Journalists later described their intimidating public presence: ‘They flaunted their fezzes on the street and treated the white man with undisguised contempt. Many of them affected formidable-looking beards.'”
Looking to avoid the hostility that forced him out of Newark, Drew told his flock to stop bothering whites and strive to live in peace with them. “I hereby warn all Moors that they must cease from all radical or agitating speeches while on their jobs, or in their homes, or on the streets,” he proclaimed. “We did not come to cause confusion; our work is to uplift the nation.” To make his point, in the winter of 1926, he paid ten dollars to the Illinois state legislature to legally incorporate the Moorish Science Temple. At Temple No. 9, the Moorish flag hangs on one side of the podium, the American flag on the other.
Drew set up shop on the south side in a rented space he called Unity Hall, on the 3600 block of Indiana Avenue. Two blocks away was a small factory called the Moorish Manufacturing Corporation, which made products like Moorish Herb Tea for Human Ailments and Moorish Body Builder and Blood Purifier. The Moors advertised in the Chicago Defender, which didn’t know what to make of them. It ran contradictory articles, sometimes likening the group to industrious fraternal organizations like the black Shriners, sometimes to snake-oil salesmen and harem operators. The Moors started printing their own newspaper, the Moorish Guide, which reached followers from Detroit to New Orleans. It ran excerpts of Drew’s Koran and stories like “Prophet’s Spirit Routs Enemy From Hall,” and it announced Drew’s political endorsements as he ingratiated himself with the south-side machine.
In September 1928 the first Moorish convention was held at Unity Hall. The Defender reported that 3,000 attended the gala event, including black Chicago politicians and judges who came at Drew’s invitation. Less than a year later Drew unexpectedly died in a follower’s south-side apartment; the cause of death was never made public. Some Moors claim he’d been violently beaten by police who questioned him after the murder of one of his estranged disciples. Another told the Defender, “The Prophet was not ill; his work was done and he laid his head upon the lap of one of his followers and passed out.”
In 1932 a representative from Temple No. 15, in Indianapolis, traveled to the Frazier farm, where the whole family—with the exception of one of Reuben’s uncles—signed up and received nationality cards declaring them Moorish-Americans. The suffix “Bey” was tacked onto their last names, to signify which tribe of the medieval Moors they were descended from. Other new members got “El” or “Ali.” Johnson-Bey says his family probably practiced Christianity before that, but by the time he was born his grandfather was starting a congregation on the Frazier-Bey farm.
After Drew’s death the Moors had broken into rival factions, each claiming superior authenticity. There were shoot-outs and arrests at Unity Hall. One of Drew’s highest-ranking followers, W. Fard Mohammed, left Chicago for Detroit and founded the Nation of Islam, taking a bite out of Drew’s membership. But eventually the dust settled and new leaders emerged. Through the 1930s dozens of new temples opened all over the country. Membership estimates for that time range widely, but most put the number at about 30,000, with the biggest congregations in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit.
The Frazier-Bey farm became a rest stop for high-ranking Moors en route to Chicago. “I was grandpa’s chauffeur,” Johnson-Bey says. “When dignitaries came up to the farm, he’d call for me and I’d drive them around in the backseat. I didn’t say a word, just listened and drove. Grandpa could trust me not to interrupt or to spread around what I heard.” The farm hosted huge barn dances in honor of Drew’s birthday on January 8, and Moors came from all over the country in elaborate turbans and flouncy silk costumes.
Johnson-Bey visited Chicago regularly for the annual convention and meetings of the Young People’s Moorish National League. He became local chairman of the League at 15 and taught a children’s Sunday school class. In 1955 a close family friend asked his mother if he could live with her and her niece for a bit to help out around the house. The friend, Sister M. Tiggs-El, was a famed seamstress who made garments for Moorish holidays—her niece, Venus, is still a member of Temple No. 9. “I didn’t want to leave the farm and come to a whole new metropolitan city,” Johnson-Bey says, “but the family said I should go, and that was that.”
He was 20 when he moved into their apartment, on a stretch of Orleans that would later be enveloped by Cabrini-Green. He thought his stay would be short, but six months later he married Cora Patton-Bey, a young woman he’d seen at League meetings. Reuben Jr. was born a year later. They got an apartment a couple blocks away from the Moorish Science Temple’s home office at 1104 N. Sedgwick. He took a dollar-an-hour job at Montgomery Ward and she worked at a health clinic. At the time Temple No. 9 met in a hall on Orleans rented from a moving company called Howell Brothers. The congregation bought its current home in Ukrainian Village from an order of Buddhist monks in 1984, holding bake sales and rummage sales to raise funds.
In 1985 Johnson-Bey got a job with the CTA, where he was known as “Bey.” He didn’t wear a fez to the office or talk about his religion, but if someone wished him a merry Christmas or called him black, he corrected them. “It didn’t seem to bother them any about me being a Muslim, because I didn’t bother them any about what creed or nationality they belonged to,” he says. “I treated everyone with friendliness and fairness at work, whether Asiatic or European.” It was harder for his school-age children, by then three sons and a daughter, when holidays came around. “In the schools the European children would talk about presents and so on and so forth, but I broke it down for them. I said, December 25th is not the date Jesus was born. It’s a man-made holiday, primarily a business holiday so you can spend your money.” It helped that the Prophet’s birthday celebration came in January; to this day there’s still a large barn dance on the Frazier-Bey farm.
The other members of Temple No. 9 asked Johnson-Bey to be their Grand Sheik in 2005. But with Cora’s decline into Alzheimer’s, he had his hands full. “You have to work with the members and help them resolve their problems,” he says, “and I figured I had enough problems of my own.” He’d also have to officiate weddings and funerals and preach at Friday night services. He finally agreed on the condition that he also could keep his old position as door mufti, guarding the temple from the outside and interrogating visitors at the door. “Due to the fact that we’re in a large metropolitan city, there are not too many people you can trust to guard the door. Sometimes we have neighbors come by, straight from the tavern, swerving and slipping. They might just want to come in from the cold. They might say, ‘Can I just come up, and sit and listen?’ I have to tell them, no, just keep on walking. We have children and sisters up there. You have to do it in a mild manner. We don’t want to cause any confusion or harm. Or if members who have fallen by the wayside come back, and they have alcohol on the breath or they aren’t properly dressed, maybe in headdress they picked up from some other Islamic body, I have a conversation with them and tell them to come by another time. I’m trying to train a couple younger brothers to be on the door, but right now they’re too green.”
One of the brothers he’s working with is J. Mohr-El, who’s in his early 30s and stands out from the reserved older crowd in his baby blue suits, glinting rings, and crocodile-skin boots. He lives in Michigan but stops by the temple a couple times a month when he’s in town visiting family. He’s one of the only members who’s done time in prison, where he first heard of Drew Ali. When he takes the podium on Friday nights, he issues a booming “Islam, y’all!” that makes the other members jump in their seats. His style is more holy roller than they’re used to, rising to thunderous highs and falling almost to a whisper, but the members seem to like it. “Preach it brother!” they shout, the women hiding smiles behind their songbooks. Johnson-Bey tends to fold his hands on his knees, looking blankly ahead or at the clock on the wall.
Mohr-El is one of only two people who’ve been made official members of the temple in the last few years. He attended services for three years before he was accepted. Johnson-Bey admits that his incarceration worried him. “The members kept saying to me, ‘Why don’t you make him a member? He’s been coming for a long time now,'” he says. “Well, I was real skeptical. I finally said I would wait till he asked me himself. We had a frank discussion about his history, and I told him we expect members to abide by all the laws of the government and this that and other.”
He says he was surprised by how the younger man pitched in to help out with the convention. “I got a call on my cell phone when I was out riding one morning, and it was J. Mohr-El. I had just picked up three large buffalo fish, eight pounds each. He asked could I use any help, and I said well, no, all I have to do is clean these fish. He said to let him help me with that. So we rolled up our sleeves and I taught him to clean and season the fillets in the kitchen, and really he was very helpful. He just might be made a mufti, we’ll have to see. He is skilled in cleaning buffalo fish, anyhow.”
On Sunday the 16th, the biggest night of the convention, the sidewalk outside the temple was buzzing. The men wore fezzes, sharp suits, and well-oiled dress shoes, the women royal purple and peacock blue turbans over sequined shawls and high heels. They’d squeezed into passenger vans to come from Detroit, Philadelphia, D.C., and dozens of towns in between. Five of Johnson-Bey’s siblings and their spouses drove in from Hope in an RV and parked behind the temple; they slept there for five days. There were more people just waiting to get in than actually attend services on a good Friday night. They all turned their palms up and shouted “Islam, brother, Islam, sister!” as more Moors pulled up to the curb.
Inside, the stairs leading to the main room were lined with serious-looking young women and men in dark turbans and fezzes—muftis in charge of security. They offered greetings of “Islam!” to everyone who passed. The pews were packed tight; Moors crammed onto the steps and ringed the walls. One mufti walked around with a video camera; others ran cups of water to older members.
The room was hot. A hymn started up. “We’re marching, marching in America / We’re marching, marching into Mecca.” Brother R. Love-El, a former Grand Sheik of the national body (and a former Detroit cop), took the podium in a red velvet robe and leaned on a gnarled cane as he delivered his sermon. “Keep the temple doors open!” he boomed. “People aren’t gonna come till we tell them to come. Then they gonna lay down their Bibles and turn to Allah. They will learn that they are not black, Negro, colored, or Ethiopian! The streets are gonna fill up with men in turbans and fezzes! The prophet said ‘Membership will dwindle down to a handful, but keep the doors open, and I’ll drive them in!’ Oh, if they could only hear the beauty of Islam.”
Johnson-Bey stood against the wall in a creamy white suit and a red bow tie. In each arm he held one of his wide-eyed granddaughters, two of a small handful of children at the convention. Another hymn started up—”By and by, we’ll get there by and by”—and Johnson-Bey added his rich baritone to the swell of voices. It would probably be another year before the gold-painted walls of Temple No. 9 rang with so much sound.v