From Oral History to the Archives and Back Again: Researching Black Presbyterian Identity in the Great Migration | Presbyterian Historical Society

You are here

From Oral History to the Archives and Back Again: Researching Black Presbyterian Identity in the Great Migration

September 26, 2019
Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr., 1960. [Pearl ID: 5065]

--by Douglas H. Brown Clark

A New Black Presbyterian Church

One spring day in 1937, a few white Presbyterians approached two black community leaders on a street corner in North Philadelphia. The white Presbyterians’ local church had been dwindling. African Americans had been moving into the community from the American South in droves as a part of the Great Migration, and white Philadelphians had been moving to the suburbs as a part of “white flight.” According to Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr., these Presbyterians asked the black men,

Do you see that fine church building across the street? It will seat more than five hundred people, but today no more than twenty elderly white people use it for no more than an hour’s worship service on Sunday mornings. The rest of the congregation has gone to the suburbs. This building has a fully equipped kitchen and dining hall, about fifteen classrooms, a bowling alley in the basement, and a full gymnasium. The Presbytery of Philadelphia will give you folks that building if you will organize a new Presbyterian church on that property.[1]

One of these black leaders, Gayraud S. Wilmore, Sr., was a decorated veteran and former member of a celebrated regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, every member of which was awarded the Croix de Guerre after serving under French leadership in World War I. After the war, Wilmore, Sr. had founded the first black American Legion Post in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s Crispus Attucks Post 151, named for the African American martyr of the Boston Massacre. Together with the other black community leader, a dentist named John K. Rice, Wilmore, Sr. had also founded a community organization called the North Philadelphia Civic League (NPCL), which prioritized “improving living conditions in the black ghetto,” and fighting “police brutality, slum lords and rent gougers, and a variety of other sins…,” and was engaged in “open warfare for good government, better schools, and decent life and livelihood” in North Philadelphia.[2] Wilmore, Sr. and Rice agreed to the white Presbyterians’ proposal, and soon became Presbyterians themselves. 

McDowell Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA, 1895. [Pearl ID: 6007]

[This facility] was exactly the kind of property the North Philadelphia Civic League was looking for to house its expanding program. I don’t believe that anyone has ever seen a church organized so quickly. Almost overnight the League, to all intents and purposes, became the new McDowell Presbyterian Church. They immediately persuaded Rev. Arthur E. Rankin, the pastor of the Berean Presbyterian Church, to become their pastor. Some of the officers of the League became the officers of the church, and many of the League members left Baptist and Methodist churches to become instant Presbyterians. Fundamentally nothing about the League really changed, only the new name it took on. Its institutional commitment to and involvement in social action in North Philadelphia was deepened and broadened as the League was transformed into a church. The McDowell Presbyterian Church soon became one of the most culturally and politically active congregations in our section of the city.[3]

Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr., a child of that church, later described the congregation as “the North Philadelphia Civic League on its knees” which practiced “a brand of Christianity that read the Bible through the daily newspaper and the newspaper through the Bible,” and whose pastor “preached a highly personal conversion on Sunday morning and practiced a kind of Black Presbyterian social salvation through community organization the rest of the week.”[4] The church stood “on the side of reform and the behavior of the Good Samaritan, with the extra clean-up tactics of more Black police officers and vigilant Democratic Party ward leaders,” amid “the open warfare for good government, better schools, and decent life and livelihood in the changing neighborhoods along the Ridge and Columbia Avenue arteries in North Philly.”[5]

Berean Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA, 1895. [Pearl ID: 6304

Less than fifty years later, that child—the minister, theologian, and activist Rev. Dr. Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr.—would write the book Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope (1983) after becoming, I would argue, the most influential African American Presbyterian (and one of the most influential American Presbyterians) of the twentieth century. Earlier this year, he received the first honorary doctorate awarded in the 165-year history of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Gayraud Wilmore, Oral History, and the Archives

This story is a part of my research as a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University. My dissertation, which as of this writing is a few days away from being submitted, is entitled A Solid Black Hyphen: Race, Religion, and Identity in the Black Power Activism of Gayraud S. Wilmore, and is an examination of the religious roots of the Black Power movement, focusing especially on the life and thought of Wilmore. Wilmore was the top United Presbyterian racial justice official in the 1960s, co-founder of the National Conference of Black Churchmen, and a close ally of the late James H. Cone in creating the field of Black Theology. I have been fortunate to have been aided in this project by two amazing opportunities: the chance to peruse the materials of the Presbyterian Historical Society with the support of its Research Fellowship program, and the chance to interview my dissertation subject, the now 97-year-old Dr. Wilmore, in person.

These two opportunities, consisting of oral history and archival research, have complemented each other well. The stories of people of color are often missing from or harder to find in an archive. For a new researcher like me, even with the assistance of the resourceful PHS staff, it can be difficult to know where to start. Oral history sources can exaggerate, mix up, or leave out details—especially when the events being recounted happened long ago. I was able to go back and forth between interviewing Wilmore and researching at PHS, using his oral narrative to point me toward the right archival materials, and then using such materials to jog his memory. 

Gayraud Wilmore, 1947. Photo courtesy of Douglas H. Brown Clark and Lincoln University archives.

In the case of the story of the curious circumstances of how the Wilmore family became Presbyterian, I started with the oral history narrative. PHS staff then pointed me to the records of McDowell Memorial Community Presbyterian Church. Most of the details were exactly as Dr. Wilmore tells them. The new church was founded in September 1937 when a declining white congregation handed the building over to two hundred new, and mostly black, charter members. Gayraud S. Wilmore, Sr. and John K. Rice are the first two names listed on the new church’s roll of trustees. A 1939 letter from the church’s pastor, Arthur E. Rankin, appeared on the letterhead of “The McDowell Community Center, Under the Auspices of McDowell Memorial Community Church,” with John K. Rice listed as “Chairman of the Committee in Charge,” thus underscoring the ease with which the NPCL effectively became McDowell Church. Church records reveal that Wilmore, Sr. served for decades as Sunday School Superintendent and as Scoutmaster for the church-sponsored Boy Scout troop, eventually receiving Scouting’s prestigious “Silver Beaver Award” for this leadership and for founding several other Boy Scout troops.

I was able to go back and forth between interviewing Wilmore and researching at PHS, using his oral narrative to point me toward the right archival materials, and then using such materials to jog his memory.

PHS records not only confirmed what Wilmore had already told me, they also filled in key gaps in the oral history narrative. For example, those 1930s white Presbyterians were not quite as generous as Wilmore’s narrative makes them appear. In addition to the requirement that the new church be Presbyterian, there was another string attached to the proposal made to Rice and the elder Wilmore. The new congregation had to take on the building’s $9,000 mortgage, and pay for $2,500 in needed repairs - the equivalents of $160,000 and $45,000, respectively, in today’s dollars.

Black Presbyterians in the Great Migration: Supplementing the Secondary Literature

From the cover of "Presbyterian Life," June 15, 1964. Edler G. Hawkins, Moderator of the 1964 UPCUSA General Assembly.

This story of the origins of McDowell Church is also informed by—and provides a corrective to—the secondary literature. The late Andrew E. Murray, a longtime PHS board member and winner of its 1983 Distinguished Service Award, was the author of Presbyterians and the Negro: A History (1966), published by PHS. Despite the unavoidable limitations of a 60-year-old historical study, Presbyterians and the Negro: A History still has yet to be surpassed as the authority in its field. Murray’s work demonstrates that McDowell Church was not the only case in which white Presbyterian churches in Northern cities closed down and passed their buildings on to African Americans during the Great Migration. Murray explains that while the 1920s were a high point for the growth of northern black Presbyterianism, in the 1930s, “only two major [black] church projects were begun in the North.”[6] However, these two new churches, St. Augustine’s Presbyterian Church in the Bronx and the Church of the Master in Harlem, would become two of the largest and most influential black Presbyterian churches in the United States in the coming decades. Their founding and longtime pastors, Edler G. Hawkins and James H. Robinson, along with the late theologian Katie G. Cannon, are the three people who come closest to surpassing Wilmore as the most influential black Presbyterian of the last century. St. Augustine’s and the Church of the Master were both founded in 1938, a year after McDowell Church. All three of these churches began in facilities given to them by declining white Presbyterian congregations, and all three would quickly fill their pews with hundreds of African Americans who were new to Presbyterianism.

The Makemie Award presented to Andrew Murray, 1967. Photo courtesy of Douglas H. Brown Clark.

Despite the similarities of these three churches, only two of them appear in Murray’s narrative. Murray seems to have been unaware of the founding circumstances of McDowell Church, though he was surely aware of the church itself. Murray spent his entire academic career at Lincoln University, a (then) Presbyterian-related, historically black university forty miles southwest of Philadelphia, as professor of church history and as dean of its theological seminary, which, until its closure in 1959, was one of two historically black Presbyterian seminaries in the nation. McDowell Church and Lincoln’s seminary also were closely connected. One of the links between the two was Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr., a valedictorian graduate of both Lincoln’s college and seminary. In fact, Wilmore has cited Murray as his favorite white professor, “the only [white] teacher at Lincoln with whom I found a true kinship.”[7] Anyone interested in further research on Murray himself will find a gold mine at PHS. Its archives include his diary, in which he made entries almost every day for more than four decades! (See: Andrew E. Murray via PHS’s Calvin catalog and Andrew Murray via its Sheppard database.)

Wilmore’s Story

Wilmore’s Lincoln education, interrupted by combat service as a Buffalo Soldier in Italy during the Second World War, further immersed him in the world of black Presbyterianism and prepared him for a life of ministry, activism, and scholarship. It also gave him the opportunity to, with his younger brother, engage in an early sit-in movement to desegregate white-owned businesses near Lincoln’s campus. After seminary, Wilmore played a key role in desegregating local public schools while serving as a pastor in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He then became the only African American on the denomination’s social action staff, the only African American on the drafting committee which created the Confession of 1967, and the first black professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Wilmore’s most important work was as the denomination’s top racial justice official, as the first executive director of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.’s Commission on Religion and Race, from 1963 to 1972. The Commission registered voters in Mississippi, lobbied for Civil Rights legislation, and was engaged in almost every theater of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In the late 1960s, Wilmore co-founded the National Conference of Black Churchmen, the largest ecumenical organization of pro-Black Power clergy, and was one of the primary theologians at the root of the creation of the academic field of Black Theology. He was a staunch defender of James Forman’s 1969 demands that white religious institutions pay reparations for slavery, and a leader in the denomination’s decision to contribute funds to the legal defense of Angela Davis in 1971. In the 1970s and 1980s, he taught at Boston University, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, New York Theological Seminary, and the Interdenominational Theological Center. He wrote many articles as well as five books in black religious studies, including Black Religion and Black Radicalism (1973), Black and Presbyterian (1983), and Pragmatic Spirituality (2004), and he and James Cone together edited the two-volume Black Theology: A Documentary History (1979 and 1993).

From cover of first edition, 1983. Call number: West Press 4808.

I am deeply grateful to the Presbyterian Historical Society for the opportunity to research there in December 2016 and in September 2017, aided by its Research Fellowship program. The PHS staff have been warm and helpful before, during, and after my visits, as I examined the records of McDowell Church, Gayraud Wilmore, and the Commission on Religion and Race, as well as many audio-recordings. The staff dug up other sources I had not thought to consider, and, most importantly, made a thoroughly inexperienced, first-time researcher feel at home in the archives. My project would not have been possible without their assistance in putting PHS materials in conversation with my interviews of and correspondence with Dr. Wilmore. I eagerly anticipate visiting PHS again in the near future.

--Douglas H. Brown Clark is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where he specializes in American and African American religious history; he recently defended his doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University. His dissertation, A Solid Black Hyphen: Race, Religion, and Identity in the Black Power Activism of Gayraud S. Wilmore, examines religion and Black Power through the activism of Gayraud S. Wilmore.

Thanks to the Wilmore family, PHS recently received the personal papers of Gayraud S. Wilmore. Learn about our African American Leaders & Congregations collecting initiative here, or contact Records Archivist David Staniunas.

Further Information:

Recordings and publications by Gayraud S. Wilmore, Jr.

Gayraud Wilmore Reflects on Religion and Race, June 2018.

Rollins and Wilmore, February 2012.

Presbyterians and the Civil Rights Movement, 2014.

You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

[1] Gayraud S. Wilmore, Pragmatic Spirituality: The Christian Faith through an Africentric Lens (New York: New York University, 2004), p. 261.

[2] Wilmore, Pragmatic Spirituality, p. 261; Gayraud S. Wilmore, e-mail message to the author, January 6, 2017.

[3] Wilmore, Pragmatic Spirituality, pp. 261-262.

[4] Gayraud S. Wilmore, e-mail messages to the author, November 28 and 30, 2016.

[5] Wilmore, e-mail message to the author, November 28, 2016.

[6] Andrew E. Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro: A History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966), p. 215.

[7] Gayraud S. Wilmore, e-mail message to the author, September 1, 2017.


African American...