Imperium in Imperio by Sutton E. Griggs holds a very unusual distinctive place in literary history. It is the first, last, and only utopian novel centering on African-American society published prior to the 20th century. Griggs was a college educated Baptist minister who owned his own publishing company through, which he made Imperium in Imperio known to the world.
The work reflects the strong influence of the writings and philosophies of Booker T. Washington (upon whom Belton Piedmont is based) and W.E.B. DuBois (the character of Harvard graduate Bernard Belgrave is unmistakably based in part upon DuBois). Some of the narrative's subject matter also prefigures and predicts the rise of the “Black Power” movement in its vivid portrayal and inherent approval of black militancy as a way of responding to white prejudice and bigotry. And yet, the novel essentially boils down to the non-violent preference of by committed integrationist Belton Piedmont for death over supporting a militant plot to conquer Texas and Louisiana and transform it into a separatist segregated utopia for black people; or an imperium in imperio (a state within a state).
The stimulus for that plan actually has a basis in historical fact. In the 1890s, a similar plot was concocted that targeted Oklahoma rather than its southern neighbors. The Imperium is a secret black society complete with political structure and trained army and though it ends up being dismantled, that dismantlement brings with it the lurking potential for re-establishment if movement toward establishing racial equality is not vigorously pursued.
The self-published novel was sold mostly at black churches and failed to make an impression upon the black public while being utterly ignored by the white audience. Nevertheless, Griggs would go to wrote several follow-up novels while waiting for his revolutionary Imperium in Imperio to finally be discovered.