History of the Program of Black Church Studies

Forty years ago, on November 10, 1969, divinity school trustee Dr. Gardner C. Taylor presided over the Inaugural Convocation for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Professorship of Black Church Studies and the Installation of Henry Heywood Mitchell as the first Martin Luther King Jr. Professor. The occasion marked the official beginning of a program, the first of its kind in the nation—a program which has grown in reputation and service to the church and wider community. The title of Dr. Mitchell’s inaugural address was “The Prophetic Dream and the Route Through Reality.” The path to that moment in the school’s history had, indeed, been a tortuous route of dream and reality, a path followed persistently by the school’s African American students.

Beginning with the visit of the young Martin Luther King, Jr., to the campus in January 1958, students, black and white, and faculty members had become involved, both nationally and locally, in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The involvement, however, had to do with justice issues and was unrelated to the education of black leadership for church and society.

The Black Student Caucus

In 1967, 14 black students organized the Black Student Caucus. The group desired to form a distinct identity and to have a unified voice on the campus. The caucus asked that an African American professor be hired to teach a course related to Black history. During the 1967-68 academic year two visiting professors taught just one day a week.

On April 4, 1968, the nation was stunned by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Members of the Black Student Caucus sought permission to hold a memorial worship service, and people from the city joined students, faculty, and administration in honoring the slain civil rights leader. During the service the caucus demanded that a program of Black Church Studies be established at the school. Old Testament Professor Werner Lemke pledged the first $100 to establish an endowed chair. Other gifts followed. At its May meetings following the assassination, and in response to the student request, the CRDS Board of Trustees voted to hire a full-time African American professor. John David Cato joined the faculty in the fall of 1968.

The student caucus had established a goal of $800,000 for the funding of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Chair and for student scholarship funds. Mahalia Jackson, “Queen of the Gospel Singers,” helped launch the formal campaign at a dinner at a downtown hotel. An editorial in the local Democrat and Chronicle newspaper stated: “Like Dr. King, 14 black students at the Divinity School have a dream.” By September the caucus had gifts and pledges totaling $260,000 and their demands increased to include more trustees, faculty, and student recruiters. The administration asked to postpone the establishment of the Black Church Studies Program due to lack of resources.

The Lock-Out

If the death of Martin Luther King Jr., provided the ascending movement for the formation of the Black Church Studies Program at the divinity school, the lock-out at the school, 11 months later, provided the climax.

At an all-school luncheon on December 10, 1968, the Black Student Caucus, in keeping with the mood of the time and with their own frustrations, made a series of specific demands: 11 new trustees on the 36 member board of Colgate Rochester, at least three Black members of the executive committee, the next three faculty appointments to be Black, the school to take responsibility for completing the MLK Fund, an immediate plan to hire more Black secretaries in school offices, and new staff appointments to cover recruitment, field education, and placement of Black students. The demands were taken seriously. “[They] helped bring into focus convictions already in place,” said President Gene E. Bartlett, but “you cannot overcome in 77 days what has been going on for generations.”

Special meetings of the trustees on February 10 and of the faculty on February 17 and 18 continued the process toward change; however on Sunday morning, the first of March, the doors of the main building were all chained. On a blackboard just inside the front door a notice read: NO MORE SCHOOL ‘TILL ALL OUR DEMANDS ARE MET. The 19 black students then enrolled at the school were inside the building.

The confrontation lasted 18 days—eighteen days of anguish and determination, of tension and uncertainty both for those locked in and for those locked out. Although many other members of the school community agreed in principle with what was happening, there was division concerning how the crisis should be resolved. In a talk and question session at a local church, Dr. Bartlett responded to the question of why school officials did not forcibly remove the students from the building by saying,

“Why didn’t we move in and take them out of that building? There was, for one thing, a long tradition at Colgate Rochester going back to Howard Thurman and Mordecai Johnson and distinguished Black men who had given leadership. In a sense, that whole tradition was in that building. Moreover, the sympathies, the mood, the hopes of the faculty and the white students were in that building, too. There was the commitment of the school which had been stated again and again that was in that building. There was a conviction that in our time we too easily run into violence, and that there must be a better way to handle this kind of human conflict—and that commitment was in that building. There was, moreover, men for whom we had great respect. I have to tell you that I doubt if there are any 19 men we could gather who have as much basic ability, commitment and Christian concern as the men who were locked in that building….All of that was in that building.”

Following the lock-out, a group of prominent African American educators met at the divinity school in May to “set some guidelines” for the new Black Church Studies Program. The conference included consultations between the six consultants and the Black Student Caucus. In June 1969 President Bartlett and the caucus made a joint announcement of the appointment of Rev. Henry H. Mitchell to the King professorship and the fall initiation of the Program of Black Church Studies. Additional financial help had come from two foundations—Eli Lilly and Irwin-Sweeney-Miller. In September an African American faculty of five and one adjunct began teaching both black and white students from a course listing of eight subjects.

Through the years

Eleven Deans and Directors have led the Program of Black Church Studies since its inception:

  • Dr. Henry H. Mitchell, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Black Church Studies and Director (1969-1973)
  • Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Black Church Studies and Director (1974-1983)
  • Rev. Dwight Webster, Interim Director (1983-1985)
  • Dr. Robert M. Franklin, Dean (1985-1989)
  • >Dr. James H. Evans, Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Black Church Studies (1984-1990), Dean (1989-1990), President of CRCDS (1990-2000), and now Robert K. Davies Professor of Systematic Theology>
  • Dr. Leardrew Johnson, Acting Dean (1990-1991)
  • Dr. Walter Earl Fluker, Dean (1991-1998, Leave of Absence 1995-1997)
  • Dr. Charles A. Thurman, Interim Dean (1995-1997)
  • Dr. Darryl M. Trimiew, Dean and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Christian Social Ethics (1997-2003)
  • Rev. Lawrence Hargrave, Acting Dean (2003-2006)
  • Rev. Adrienne L. Phillips, Interim Dean (2006-2007)

Over the years the program has experienced the changes that come with time; however the primary aim has been consistent—to prepare leadership for the Black Church. Secondary aims that have been consistently maintained relate to the enrichment of educational experience for all students and to a strong relationship to the wider community of Rochester and its African American churches. Outstanding and ongoing programs have evolved from the original vision of the Program of Black Church Studies. Notable are the Alternate Education Program, also known as PEARL (The Program of Education and Action for Responsible Leadership), and the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Institute of Religion, the Martin Luther King Jr. Lectures, and the Howard Thurman Lectures.

In 2007 the original vision of a fully-endowed chair led to a renewed effort to raise $1.5 million for The Martin Luther King Jr. Endowed Chair for Social Justice and Black Church Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. That effort continues under the leadership of a national committee which includes many of our alumni/ae who serve the Black Church in positions of national prominence.