More about the Legacy of Race in Seventh-day Adventist Culture
Fourth of an 8-part Series
By Cleran Hollancid, May 26, 2017: There were two Adventist churches on the same street, in an area outside Houston (where I lived for a while in the late 20th century), with members living like Cold War enemies. One church belongs to the Regional Conference and the other to the state conference. No doubt you can find many other similar examples, such as Black and White Adventist elementary schools just a few minutes from each other. It’s mutually exclusive overlap; and for what? Sure, today you may find a White Adventist elementary school enrolling Black students. Or, you may find what appears to be unity in general. But the appearance of unity is deceiving, while the structure remains divided and attitudes remain unchanged.
Many Adventist Blacks feel more comfortable worshiping in Black-led or Regional Conferences, given the White prejudicial attitudes, and wall of oppression and humiliation they were up against. And many Adventist Whites are just not comfortable worshiping or sharing the same space with Blacks. Meanwhile, both Blacks and Whites place justification for segregation on worship style differences. It is with all of this background noise that regional conferences have been deemed successful, in terms of penetrating the Black community, and non-White communities with respect to the urban landscape. (Reynolds 1996) But so overpowering and persistent has White Adventist prejudice and resistance to equality for all proven to be, that Blacks were even pushing seriously for separate Black union conferences, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. The recommendation was that two Black union conferences (to oversee the Regional Conferences) be organized to aid in the progress of the Black work. (See the Appendix Section in Reynolds 1984.)
But before that, in the early to mid-twentieth century, most Adventist colleges did not admit Blacks. And if they did, like Andrews University (previously Emmanuel Missionary College), there was a strict quota system in place; the number may have been around 17 percent? 17 students?, if I’m not mistaken. Nevertheless, the idea was that only a specific low number of Blacks could be admitted and no more, period. I heard the story from the person who experienced it, of how he was invited to enroll at Emmanuel Missionary College, but then upon administrators learning that he was Black, he was denied admission; and as I recall, his application fee was deemed non-refundable by the college. Besides that, a notorious practice of injustice and bigotry by Adventist schools or colleges of the period (including EMC), was the policy of assigning ‘colored’ students to the rear seats during worship at chapel. There are many other stories of overt racist actions and rubbing salt in the wounds of the oppressed by White Adventists, including the burning of a cross on the campus of Andrews University in the 1960s.
Student protests erupted at historically Black Oakwood College in Alabama over racist acts and mentality, particularly in the 1930s and 1960s. (Oakwood strikes or protests date back to at least 1918). At the heart of it, Oakwood students were protesting the racist policies of the school’s all-White leadership, and the separation of the races on campus. In fact, it was the very actions of Oakwood students (shutting down school operations, and having someone stationed at each building to inform the others of the protest, etc.) that brought on the very first Black president (J.L. Moran) to the college in 1932 after 36 years of White administration. (Fisher, 110-125) But even that proved insufficient to quell the insatiable appetite of White racism that permeated the hearts and minds of the White Adventist leadership. And the leadership, seething with indignation, particularly resented the fact that Black students were taking a moral stand for the right.
To help you think about this: The first Black man was about to be college president, but with a White Board of Trustees (wielding the power in the background), whose prejudice was felt like a foreboding shadow. For example, White leaders made the decision that even if Moran was president, the business affairs of Oakwood were to be administered by a White controller and business manager, who would be the link between the school board and the General Conference. From all appearances, this was part of a racist plot that implicates J. L. McElhany as a perpetrator and M. L. Andreason (at the time, president of Union College) as an accomplice, among others. (Fisher, 116)
In the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, for the sake of maintaining religious principles, good Adventist ethics, and not associating with those outside the church, Oakwood students, faculty, and church members were warned by church leadership not to advocate or participate in civil rights protests. In other words, “We (church leaders) know what we’re doing; just take the injustice and discrimination we mete out to you and be sure to keep mum about it.” It was around this time that Martin Luther King Jr. came to the Oakwood College campus to speak. Leadership had strict rules for that.
But here is an idea of what the Oakwood College students were to keep silent about, bearing in mind that in the 1930s, the practice of segregation on campus was a moral issue to be addressed by church leaders and the board of trustees, as far as Oakwood students were concerned. In the 1960s, some Oakwood students attempted to integrate local White Adventist churches in the area. That was indeed futile. But White Adventists would change the order of service, switching the 9:30 a.m. Sabbath School with the 11:00 worship service, so that the Oakwood College students would miss the worship service. Now comes the bombshell! Since the Oakwood College students were not learning their lesson the easy way and still exerting effort with all of that gospel integration stuff, White Adventist segregationists pursued the unthinkable. White Adventist deacons and other church officials called the police to efficiently rid the Black presence from church property. (Fisher, 116-120) They may have been prepared to have officials call in the National Guard if necessary.
Outrage! Outrage of the most extreme order! However, as a contemplative measure, if you could stop for a moment and imagine yourself listening to music and then a sermon on the Three Angels’ Messages, or even the heavenly sanctuary. Then comes that tap on your shoulder – the city police, no less.
Imagine that – in an Adventist church, where unity, prophecy, and love is preached in the pulpit, church officials have the gall to call in the police to handle the crime of ‘being Black’ – in this case Blacks wanting to worship with Whites. Compare that with the Richard Allen story where the White church trustee had to call for church backup. That was somewhere around the year 1800. This time, around a 160-plus years later (100 years after the Civil War), police assistance is urgently needed to extract peaceful Black worshippers from an Adventist church, just for a sense of security and peace of mind, knowing that the color-line is strictly preserved. In other words, a tougher approach was needed to show the seriousness of the hardcore White segregationists’ position. After that, worship and prayers continue.
I was recently informed by an Adventist pastor, that a White Adventist member or church officer in Alabama carried a shotgun to church to threaten Black members to keep out. Of course, most Adventist Whites don’t exercise such extreme attitudes and behavior.
“But this is all in the past; why are you so brazenly and conspicuously beating a dead horse? So what about the current segregated structure that is an in-your-face reminder of heartless Jim Crow policies and the racist legacy of Adventist White supremacy? Is that in the past also?
Another story of White racism in Adventist education is by Kyle Berg, a senior, recounting some of the racist history of another Adventist institution, Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. (The Clocktower, February 22, 2015) It is entitled: ‘Union College Takes a Step Forward: Reconciliation at Last,’ although the end of the article points out that “reconciliation has begun.” Kyle writes: “From the 1930s to the 1960s, Union College participated in racial discrimination and segregation on campus,” pointing out that the college is guilty and his part was to insist that a formally apology be made by the college. Kyle brought Oscar Harriott (son of a Union College alumnus) into the picture. Everything changed. Harriott shared with them a little about his father’s experience as a Union College student in the 1940s. From what I gather, Oscar Harriott is either Black or non-White. Here is Kyle’s depiction of that deeply troubling and revealing clause:
“… Gathered around that piano, Harriott shared with us that his father had to stand with his cafeteria tray in hand until a White student invited him to sit down. If no White students invited him to sit, he was forced to eat standing against the walls of the same kind of room that you and I enjoy our meals in now.”
Process that slowly. I realize that for some of you, you may be familiar with such acts in your own history, and you may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? Much worse than that has happened; this was simply the nature of the times.” Keep in mind that such stories are absolutely foreign to the rest of us. And lest you’re tempted to think that Mr. Harriott’s case may have been an isolated incident, let me quickly disabuse you of that consolation. Similar practices have been noted elsewhere, such as the policy at Andrews University, whereby “Colored students were subjected to an unwarranted and humiliating form of segregation in having to wait for their meals until there might be a ‘quota’ of colored students to fill a table.”[i] Blacks were not allowed to eat with Whites in the school cafeteria.
Although I cannot claim to be the victim of anti-Black discrimination and psychological abuse while dining in the cafeteria during my undergrad days at an Adventist institution, I immediately identified with Mr. Harriott’s situation . It hit home, and it hit hard. And again, although I do not claim to share Mr. Harriott’s harrowing and deeply traumatic experience, in that very instant I felt the indescribable pain, shame, and utter dejection, and the manner in which it was all rubbed in and stuck slowly.
I realized more forcefully that the Adventist Church has to stop, put everything down – its beloved evangelism agenda, its pillar doctrines, its health message, its Revelation Seminars, and even its theme of “Arise! Shine! Jesus is Coming!” as in the 2015 session of the General Conference of the Adventist world church – and deal with the race problem in a sincere, revolutionary, and plenary manner, for it’s literally eating the church from the inside out. It’s now or never. If not, racism, which has already harmed the Adventist Church spiritually, physically, and otherwise, will continue to do much more irreversible damage as the church continues to play in spite of the festered wound.
And more telling, it’s an affront to God and the very gospel that the church so dearly espouses and claims to proclaim, to be speaking pleasing words of togetherness and unity, when the practice and heart reside on a different plane altogether. For some, laying great emphasis on the theme of Jesus’ soon return, also elicits a hands-off approach to social or racial problems and the like, since as some see it, “Christ’s coming will take care of all that; that’s not my problem.” They’re saying they’re quite comfortably preparing for an integrated heaven in a segregated manner? Hypocrites! They can’t have it both ways.
According to Kyle, it was Chris Blake’s ‘Conflict and Peacemaking’ class that, based on the unfolding of contemporary events, actually “began to draft up a formal apology letter on behalf of Union College.” And it was only after the Board of Trustees heard about unfolding details of this whole narrative, that “they voted to approve the formal apology letter on February 9 .” Wait a minute – “…approve the formal apology letter”? Without questioning Kyle’s sincerity or integrity for penning this piece, is it the students or church members who ought to tell leadership that its racist actions were/are wrong, and further coax leadership to do something about it? Are Adventist administrators and leaders that oblivious, ignorant of both history and current interpersonal dynamics, or just outright insensitive?
That’s the problem with the perpetuation of systems, as incidents and attitudes like this are continuously swept under the rug until it comes back with a vengeance. It is from that standpoint also that one has to question the church’s leadership. Read that college account (which itself includes a number of disturbing stories) for yourself, and attempt to grasp the gravitas of the situation, and to understand the extremely deep hurt inflicted by Whites, at both the individual and structural levels. This is symptomatic of a much larger pool of racial attitudes and problems. To clean up this sprawling mess we must speak up bravely and unequivocally, yet at the same time carry a soft heart (or as one might suggest, speak loudly and carry a small stick).
Dodson, Joseph T., “Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among Seventh-day Adventists?” By the Committee for the Advancement of the World-wide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists, p. 2. In Telling the Story, compiled by Delbert Baker; also located in General Conference Archives (Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Printing Press, 1996), Under Section 2: “About Regional Conferences.”
Fisher, Holly (2003). “Oakwood College Students’ Quest for Social Justice Before and During the Civil Rights Era,” The Journal of African American History 88/2.
Reynolds, Louis B. (1984). We Have Tomorrow: The story of American Seventh-day Adventists with an African Heritage. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association.
Reynolds, Louis B. (1996). “Separate Conferences: A Road to Fellowship,” Telling the Story: An Anthology on the Development of the Black SDA Work. Delbert W. Baker, In Cooperation with the Black Caucus of SDA Administrators (Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Printing Services, 1996 second printing), Under Section 2: “About Regional Conferences.”
Cleran L. Hollancid is a life-long Adventist who belongs to a congregation in Michigan. He is a PhD candidate in the sociology of religion at Western Michigan University. His research has focused on racial segregation in the Adventist Church in the United States of America. He completed a BA in theology at Caribbean Union College, the Master of Divinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, an MA in anthropology and an MA in sociology at Wayne State University. Is an adjunct professor in the Religious Studies Program at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. The purpose of this eight-part series is to offer beginning steps toward racial reconciliation in the Adventist faith community.
Next in the series:
More on the Legacy of Race and Historical Considerations in Adventist Culture