More about the Legacy of Race in Seventh-day Adventist Culture
Fifth of an 8-part Series
By Cleran Hollancid, May 29, 2017: The die is cast. Segregation, insensitivity, hypocrisy and the racism (institutional racism, covert racism, color-blind racism, soft racism, smiling-face racism) inherent within the deep recesses of the Adventist denomination have to stop now. Let the sanctuary be cleansed. No more soft-pedaling around the issue. There’s been too much talk, doublespeak, and excuses. Either call sin what it is, or else continue to call it holy, just, and expedient, while leaders (whether Black or White) pose for another photo op.
Prejudice, segregation, absolute exclusion, discriminatory behavior and the like have sadly colored all Adventist institutions and spheres, not just education, such as not permitting Blacks on White campgrounds (Michigan was particularly prominent in that regard), or not permitting Blacks to dine in the General Conference (or Review & Herald) cafeteria; and the same applied to Adventist hospitals, i.e., no treatment of Blacks was allowed. The case of Lucy Byard is the classic example cited in that regard, and stands as a critical hallmark of the church’s historical racism.
By the way, in case you’ve not received that message yet, my use of terms like ‘racist’ are not to point fingers at a particular individual, as much as to tell of the depth and severity of the problem; for facing the past honestly and openly can help in better apprehending the present and in future by the grace of God. And also, to accentuate an earlier point, my use of notions like ‘race,’ ‘ethnic,’ ‘White,’ ‘Black,’ or ‘colored’ and variations of such terms are solely to convey the message.
Having cleared some of that congestion, back to the Lucy Byard story for a moment. We go back to early winter 1943 in the northeast United States. Lucy’s husband brought her for treatment to the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital, later named Washington Adventist Hospital. They both were Black, but having light complexions apparently allowed them to momentarily bypass the ‘race detectors’ of hospital personnel. After looking at her chart, however, and realizing that she was Black, the Adventist hospital personnel immediately reversed course, denied her treatment, and then phoned around looking for another hospital that would admit Blacks.
The Adventist hospital staff finally found a hospital across state lines that agreed to admit Lucy and she was transferred. What was going through the minds of Adventist hospital staff and administrators? “Sorry, we Christians don’t treat colored people or Blacks.” How did the Byards feel about their rejection by a denominational hospital? Use your own imagination.
And certainly this is not the only racist case involving Adventist hospitals or the Adventist medical work. That was the norm in Seventh-day Adventism, like much of the surrounding society; so that around the same period, Black students or ‘colored girls’, for instance, were denied admittance to Adventist nursing programs, while many non-Adventist institutions, including Catholic University, accepted colored applicants. (Reynolds, particularly page 2, although this document should be read in its entirety.) This was altogether thorough Adventist institutional racism, perpetuated by Sabbath-keepers awaiting the Second Coming. But I’m not sure which is worse – the prevalence of such acts and attitudes with a nice warm smile, peaceful heart, and clear conscience, or the fact that the devoted White Adventist leadership also brazenly used the pathetic excuse that “it is against public policy to have Negro and White patients in the Washington Sanitarium.” (Reynolds, page 3)
I must pause here to clarify that it is gross error to paint all Whites, Adventist and non- Adventist, with a broad brush of calumny and racism. That would be outright misrepresentation, ethically irresponsible, and unfair characterization. It is because both the church and society back then were predominantly White and racist policies were put in place by Whites, that it appears as if all Whites are hateful and the same. Oh no, there are always the exceptions. Notwithstanding, Lucy Byard was eventually transported to the Freedmen’s Hospital, the forerunner to Howard University Hospital, where she died of pneumonia, caused by a cold draft and her light clothing while she waited in the hallway.
A caveat here is that there are varying views particularly with regards to the actual cause and timing of Lucy’s death, depending on who is telling the story. But of greater importance is that nagging question: would she have died if she was attended to at the Adventist hospital in the first place? There are many more crucial details to the story, particularly its aftermath, involving the top layers of the denomination, and very concerned Black members of the Adventist Church. The Black members’ concerns had to do with understandable frustration with the discriminatory treatment by the church over a sustained time, one of which had to do with the fact that they were financially supporting the church yet denied access to its facilities – hospital treatment, their kids barred from church schools, etc. But the Lucy story in itself forms the pinnacle of Black Adventist frustration at the time (1943), and is critical in understanding the actual run-up to the formation of the regional conferences – since there is a direct causal link between that dark hospital episode and the formation of regional conferences.
Black lay members (non-clergy) and some ministers were not looking for separate conferences in the 1940s. They came together in the immediate aftermath of the Lucy Byard incident to draft a response to the blatant injustice and outright racist practices at all levels and institutions of the church. Their requests to the White church leadership, particularly General Conference president J.L. McElhany, had more to do with equal treatment, respect, and leadership representation, at which time the White leadership decided to grant them official segregation instead. (Graham, page 136) There’s a history to the 1944 spring council meetings when the decision to segregate was made, dating back to the early twentieth century, and even further back to Charles Kinney around the 1880s; and some may even argue – further back to the era of the 1830s and the Millerite movement. Kinney, born a slave in the antebellum period, became the first Black minister ordained in the Adventist Church, after hearing the preaching of John Loughborough. At Kinney’s ordination service in 1889, the Black members were not even allowed to enter through the same entrance as Whites, let alone sit with Whites. Kinney was aching in his heart and was forced to consider separate structures and worship environments for Blacks just for the sake of peace, even at the risk of destroying the “the unity of the Third Angel’s message” as he put it. And due to the ingrained and deep-seated nature of prejudice and anti-Black discrimination among White Adventists, Kinney, against his better judgment, even went as far as considering separate conferences for the “colored people.” He was a kind-spirited man forced to think of Black-White segregation, just to stay on the side of humility and do all that seemed pleasing to appease the prejudices of the White-dominated Adventist Church. (See Kinney’s Statement in Baker 1996.)
But we can also ask another pivotal question, in thinking about the prospects of Seventh-day Adventism. Is the Jim Crow framework of ‘separate but equal’ justly warranted in the Adventist Church? What is the meaning of separate but equal? Is there such a thing? Is it valuable or enriching? The irony of it all, is that it was in that very same year – 1944 – that Adventist Irene Morgan was arrested for disobeying a state law on segregation and refused to give up her seat on a bus (some 11 years before Rosa Parks). Eventually, with the help of legal counsel (including Thurgood Marshall), her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in a landmark decision ruled the state law unconstitutional.
Baker, Delbert W., ed. (1996). Telling the Story: An Anthology on the Development of the Black SDA Work. Loma Linda, CA: Loma Linda University Printing Services.
Graham, Ricardo B. “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation,” in Calvin Rock, ed (1996). Perspectives: Black Seventh-day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, pages 127-37. This chapter by Graham, which also contains interviews and views of Black and White lay members, clergy, local conference departmental directors, and General Conference personnel, should be read in its entirety.
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:
Progress in the Twenty-first Century?