African American Leaders: Shelton Bishop Waters | Presbyterian Historical Society

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African American Leaders: Shelton Bishop Waters

January 4, 2024
Shelton Bishop Waters at his desk, 1950s. From accession 23-0508.

Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.

Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.


Harmful Content Alert: This story contains outdated and offensive language.

"They had never been in a situation like that, to have a confrontation. They became my fast friends."

A lunchtime gathering of ministers from the Presbytery of Philadelphia had just been denied a table at the Union League. The white ministers of the group, affronted, asked for explanations. Their Black colleague, Shelton Bishop Waters, pastor of First African Presbyterian Church, spoke up: "The problem is me." The men walked across the street to a five and dime lunch counter and conducted their business. Waters reflected on his life and ministry, including that particular encounter, in a recently-uncovered oral history.

Born in 1918 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Episcopalian parents, Waters grew up on the north side of the Allegheny. The family attended the Church of the Holy Cross in Homewood, some 10 miles away. His parents named him after the priest at Holy Cross, Shelton Bishop. The young Shelton joined Bidwell Presbyterian Church as a teenager, "to get mixed up with the kids of the community, and the girls." Recommended for ministry at a young age, he attended Lincoln University and Johnson C. Smith University—his transfer from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad to trains headed south for the latter was his first experience sitting in a segregated train car.

It was in Charlotte, North Carolina, that Waters got in touch with the century-long legacy of Presbyterian educational work among African Americans in the South, meeting students from the "feeder schools," Presbyterian-run elementary and secondary schools training young people for ministry, industrial, and professional careers. It was his first taste of an all-Black presbytery, and an all-Black synod, and his first time studying under Black faculty.

Shelton BIshop and Rachel Ellen Tate Waters, 1950s.

From 1947 to 1969, he was pastor of First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, leading it into a new church building on Girard Avenue in the Parkside neighborhood, where the congregation hosted Martin Luther King Jr. during his visit to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. During his time at First African, Waters was moderator of the presbytery and the synod. In his telling, his role in the presbytery was simply to make clear that it was not a white fraternity: "Now and then in presbytery, somebody would go up and make some kind of a joke that didn't sound just right. And the time came when I was able to get up and tell them, 'That's not the kind of thing you say here.' You know, we had darky jokes and things like that would come up from time to time. And the time came when they realized they couldn't get away with that anymore—within the presbytery."

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 October 1965

From 1969 to 1975, Waters was an associate executive of the Synod of the Trinity, in charge of its grant-making for African American students and for students from Appalachia. He then spent 10 years at Northeastern Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In retirement, he served two other historically Black Presbyterian churches in Pennsylvania: Washington Street in Reading, and Thomas M. Thomas Memorial in Chester.

Church work allowed Waters to travel extensively in Latin America and Africa—he led a delegation to Equatorial Guinea shortly after its independence in 1968, and he served on the UPCUSA Task Force on Southern Africa in 1970 and 1971, where he toured the South Western Townships of Johannesburg.

Waters was a Synod representative at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., riding the train through a heavily militarized Washington D.C., with Stokely Carmichael rumored to be onboard—"There was some question about 'what's Stoke going to do?'"—down to Atlanta, when finally the reality of King's absence set in. Reflecting later, Waters said, "We've all been changed. I was changed. I was changed suddenly and didn't realize how great he was until he died," reminding himself of 2 Samuel 3:38, "Do you not know this day a king has fallen?" 

Shelton Bishop Waters died in Rydal Park, PA, March 26, 2013.


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