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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Overcoming racial divisions in seminaries and congregations

Taylor describes how the desegregation experience affected seminaries and churches and why change has taken so long. He also suggests some ways churches could begin working to overcome the racial divisions that still exist within congregations.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Let me ask you about the related issue of the desegregation of church-related colleges and other institutions. How did that go about for the Presbyterian Church in the United States?
It came very slowly, and I wish I could say that the Presbyterian Church led in that. We did not; we followed. The whole matter of desegregation of education has been a primary issue in my adult life. I graduated from Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in May of 1954, and my class probably thought that that was the greatest event of that month or probably that year. But we were wrong. The fact is, the most significant event in this country in May of 1954 was Brown v. Board of Education, and what basically was happening, we youthful southern Presbyterian preacher-types were heading out to the parishes of the Southeast, largely, to walk into a major firestorm. Most of my generation's ministry has been forced to grapple with this thing. It was not until the public education structures became convincingly open to blacks that private structures conformed. There is an exception. The Presbyterian institutions and, I think, other institutions, too--I'm confident in terms of one or two Methodist institutions I know--did move rather quickly to open up to blacks and other racial ethnic representatives from overseas. It was kind of interesting. [Laughter] If you were not an American, it was to your advantage at that point if you were black. It was one of those interesting moments of transition where Africans and others, Latin Americans and Asians, began to really open the doors, and then there came with that an inrushing of black students that I wish were larger than it is now, but at least it's fairly typical of religiously oriented colleges, seminaries, and secondary schools of the mainline churches that they are thoroughly open. In other words, the thing you find, say, in a Bob Jones, where there is a desire not to have contact between the races, is an exceptional thing within the religious institutions of this country. That's not the norm.
One further related question here is, I think, in many respects a continuing issue. That's the desegregation of congregations themselves, which is probably the slowest to come about. Could you comment on any progress towards that?
Yes, there is some progress toward that, but I would say also that we need to understand exactly what that represents. Religion is very close to identity. What we believe is very close to who we are. Therefore, when you're dealing in the matter of religious identification with a congregation or a denominational tradition, you're dealing with the close personal issues of identity and commitment, with the result that rather instinctively and naturally, this is not something that you come into and walk away from after five p.m. like a job, or that you can come into and sit in rows of chairs and so forth. This has to do with who you are, so that it tends to be a very personal decision that is not immediately affected by structural change. The second thing to be observed is, that's true for blacks as well as whites, so that what that means is, all during the post-slavery period--and, in fact, during slavery to some extent, but certainly the post-slavery period--and during the period of segregation, the black church was not only a place of personal identification, as it is for whites, but it was the only institution that really was theirs. It was something that they could say, "This is ours, and the man can't control this one," so that the black church is a very important institution in every southern community, in fact in every community. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
Therefore, we're not going to find large numbers of blacks leaving a black institution that's been that important to their own personal identity and to their own corporate liberation. We're not going to find them moving into predominantly white congregations in great numbers and should not expect to. What is happening, there are two things. Some are coming. For instance, this congregation has 2,800 members. There are probably fifteen racial ethnic folks, including Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and oh, about five black Americans, which is infinitesimal in a way. But nonetheless, this is very important, and the congregation has been right savvy about seeing that they get in places of influence so that their voice is heard, so we're not just talking to white middle and upper-middle-class folks when we're talking about the mission of the church. The other thing that is happening--and I think this is much more productive--is the linking up of churches, a predominantly black church and a predominantly white church programming together, worshipping together, doing the kinds of ministries that are possible in a city like this together. That, I think, is the most productive direction in the future.