SBTS was ahead of American culture in civil rights

Communications Staff — April 17, 2009

The United States Supreme Court ordered public schools to desegregate in 1954. But long before that, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary opened its doors to blacks and became a pioneer in civil rights.

In spite of the Day Law—a Kentucky ordinance that prohibited educational institutions from receiving both white and black students as pupils—in 1942 Southern began instructing black students on campus in its Negro Extension department.

By 1944 Garland Offutt earned the number of credits required for a master of theology degree and with faculty approval became the first black graduate of any Southern Baptist Seminary. Offutt continued his studies at Southern and earned his doctor of theology degree in 1948.

The first black students completed their coursework through instruction in vacant faculty offices and sitting outside classroom doors to listen in on lectures.

Kentucky’s attorney general told the seminary such a practice did not violate the Day Law. But sometime between Offutt’s first and second graduations, the seminary began allowing black students to sit in classrooms with white students in violation of the Day Law.

According to some professors, integrated classrooms were solely a matter of utility—they got tired of teaching the same material to blacks in offices and then again to whites in classrooms. But theology professor Wayne Ward felt the law breaking was a matter of principle.

Ward recalled one incident when a police officer arrived at his class to issue a warning about violating the Day Law. When the officer hesitated to enter, Ward told him God would punish him if he arrested anyone.

The Day Law remained in effect until 1954, but trustees voted to admit black students to the seminary in 1951 rather than continuing to relegate them to the Negro Extension department.

Said Duke McCall, Southern’s president at the time, “My memory is that we decided to ignore the law. We thought we had moral ground—and probably the legal ground as well—to ignore it. We didn’t think the authorities were going to challenge the seminary over the admission of black students. We thought if anybody did, and got into federal court, it probably would get thrown out.”

By the late 1950s, the seminary quietly hired a black Nigerian, Emanuel A. Dahunsi, to teach New Testament.

But perhaps the most notable civil rights event at Southern occurred in 1961 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in chapel.

“The church must make it clear that if we are to be true witnesses of Jesus Christ, we can no longer give our allegiance to a system of segregation,” King said to approximately 1,400 people in chapel. Later in the day the civil rights leader participated in a question-and-answer session for a combined session of the seminary’s ethics classes.

In response to King’s visit, Southern Baptists generally, and even the seminary’s trustees, expressed alarm. McCall had all of his speaking engagements in Mississippi cancelled in the wake of King’s appearance, and one man in Dothan, Ala., said he planned to devote $40,000 to getting McCall fired.

But seminary faculty continued to press for racial justice. Over the next 20 years Southern made special efforts to recruit black students and began a black church studies program in the 1970s. African-American enrollment increased so dramatically that word spread among black Baptists that Southern was the “largest black seminary in the country,” with black enrollment exceeding the numbers at many historically black seminaries.

In 1986 Southern hired the first black faculty member at any SBC seminary in T. Vaughn Walker. Several African Americans have served on the faculty since then, but Walker remains the only black professor to sign the Abstract of Principles.

Are you ready to become a pastor, counselor, or church leader who is Trusted for Truth?

Apply now for summer or fall studies

Classes begin in June & Aug.