Educating those we would evangelize
Fifty years after Wake Forest University opened its student body to African-Americans, the act of embracing all of humanity remains a continual challenge.
By Bill Leonard
In 1833 Lyman Beecher, minister, educator and patriarch of one of America’s most prominent Protestant families, became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. Beecher’s move from his native New England was reflected in his essay, A Plea for the West, calling Protestants to go westward to civilize the barbarian frontier and keep the Ohio River Valley from falling into Roman Catholic hands.
Beecher no sooner arrived than he confronted a student coalition determined to stand for evangelism and abolition. After an 18-night debate in 1834, students organized an abolitionist society and began teaching freed blacks in Cincinnati.
This “mingling” of the races caused great concern, leading trustees to shut down the anti-slavery organization and order students to avoid all public commentary on slavery issues. In response, 37 of 40 theology students left, many retreating to what became Oberlin College, the first school in the country to allow blacks and women to study for degrees.
Describing the events, H. B. Stanton observed that southerners, though steeped in pro-slavery arguments, could be influenced for abolition “as easy as any other class of our citizens.”
That assessment prevailed in 1962, when students compelled Wake Forest University to become one of the first private schools in the South to integrate its student body. It began, student organizer Glenn Blackburn says, when some Baptist Student Union members formed the African Student Program, a plan to integrate Wake Forest by “embarrassing” the school into admitting a person of color from the “mission field.” They called Baptists to accept the university’s motto, Pro Humanitate (for humanity), taking responsibility for educating those whom they would evangelize.
Using their Baptist network, Wake Forest religion professors asked missionaries to recommend Africans willing to seek admission to the school. In response, missionary Harris Mobley found Ed Reynolds, a Presbyterian student from Ghana. Reynolds agreed to come to Wake Forest, and the African Student Program raised funds for his trip.
Trustee resistance continued, forcing Reynolds to do two years at Shaw University, a predominately African-American school in Raleigh. Ultimately the trustees acquiesced and Reynolds was admitted in the fall of 1962 along with an African-American female day student. (Black women were not admitted to campus residency for several years.)
The student body itself was divided over the issue with 742 voting against integration and 644 voting for it. Integrationists were not deterred.
Reynolds, recently retired professor from the University of California, San Diego, today resists suggestions that his was a special act of bravery. Yet he also acknowledges that growing up as a Christian taught him “to live life courageously.” Now 70, Reynolds still speaks with a sense of determination regarding his entry to Wake Forest 50 years ago, expressing gratitude for the people who responded to him educationally and communally.
University chaplain Ed Christman was a consistent advocate for Reynolds, helping secure a scholarship and other financial aid, linking him with students committed to the cause. Religion professor G. McLeod Bryan was a major proponent of the integration at the university, having engaged in similar efforts while teaching at Mercer University. He and missionary Mobley helped another Ghanaian, Sam Oni, become the first black student admitted to that Georgia Baptist school in 1963.
Ed Reynolds speaks glowingly of Bryan’s contribution to his life. “He stretched my thinking,” Reynolds recalls, encouraging students to research ethical issues on race, war, and homosexuality in the turbulent 1960s. J. Allen Easley, chair of the religion department, also supported university integration, insisting that “someone with authority” needed to take leadership for the cause.
Reynolds retains books that Easley gave him when he retired from Wake Forest. Affirmations came in various ways. Of New Testament Professor Dan Via, Reynolds says: “He took me to J. C. Penny’s and bought me a suit.” Students invited him for holidays, often as the first black person to share meals in their homes. Integration took many forms.
Half a century ago a group of progressive Baptist students and faculty helped integrate Wake Forest University. When admitting an African-American proved difficult, integrationists succeeded in bringing an African to the student body. They confronted Baptists with their own theology, challenging their consciences to educate those they sought to evangelize.
It is a witness worth celebrating even if the university still has a long way to go. The Winston Salem Journal reports that currently only 7.5 percent of the student body is African-American, while 26 percent of students in this year’s entering class represent racial minorities.
This year, Wake Forest welcomed its largest contingent of Chinese students, many recruited through the work of Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges, associate dean of admissions. Bridges, an ordained Baptist minister, learned to speak Mandarin as a Southern Baptist missionary to Taiwan years ago.
Ironically, while many Baptist churches in the South still would not recognize Bridges’ ordination, her Baptist-facilitated linguistic ability is a gift that is “bearing fruit” at Wake Forest. The “Lane Seminary Rebels” would be pleased.
This year the student government president at Wake Forest is a gay African-American. For universities, faith communities and individuals, Pro Humanitate remains a dangerous, restless motto.
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