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At the Crossroads (Again)

On October 14, 1944, Lucy Byard was admitted in critical condition to the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in Maryland. Because of her grave condition, she was admitted immediately1. However, once staff  discovered that she was Black (this was not immediately apparent because she was fair-skinned), the hospital arranged to transport her to Freedman’s Hospital across state lines.2 While these arrangements were being made, Byard was removed from the room she was given and waited in the hallway in a robe. Although she was admitted in critical condition, no one at the Washington Sanitarium examined or treated her before they attempted to transfer her. She was eventually discharged from the Washington Sanitarium and transported by car to Freedman’s Hospital. She died at Freedman’s Hospital before the doctors could treat her there. This treatment enraged the Black Adventists in Washington, D.C. Rumors circulated that she died of pneumonia contracted while waiting in the hallway at the sanitarium.

In order to address the situation, the vice-president of the North American Division, W.G. Turner, visited the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church, the largest Black Adventist Church in Washington, D.C. In his sermon, he spoke from 1 Peter 4:12 – “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.”

The insinuation that Black Adventists should not be amazed at the substandard treatment given by their supposed brothers in Christ further incensed the people in Washington, D.C. That evening, they quickly formed the National Association for the Advancement of Worldwide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists. This group drafted an eight-page document titled, “Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among Seventh-day Adventists?” This document outlined their displeasure with the church’s treatment of African-Americans and also outlined what they felt were the ways in which the church could begin to solve the problem of racial discrimination in the church. The president of the General Conference, Elder J. Lamar McElhaney, met with the group on at least two occasions and convened another meeting to discuss the issue at the Spring Session of the General Conference in 1944.3

The solutions presented by African-Americans sought full functional membership in the Adventist Church. Among the solutions offered by the group were ending quotas for Blacks at Adventist educational institutions, equal allocations of funds to Black churches, positions for African-Americans on various local, regional, and general conference committees, and also the hiring of African-Americans by the church. However, the leadership of the Church proposed the idea of giving Blacks their own conference structure as a solution to the problem.4 There were proponents and detractors on both sides of the idea, and some Black leaders had serious reservations about the motives of Church leadership in proposing this solution. After much debate, this motion was proposed and unanimously accepted on April 10, 1944:

In union conferences, when the Colored constituency is considered to be sufficiently large enough, and when the income and territory warrant, separate conferences for the Colored membership shall be organized. Such conferences are to be administered by Colored officials and Colored committees.”5

Many Blacks felt powerless in coming to a solution to the problem of discrimination in the church. Joseph T. Dodson, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Worldwide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists, stated, “They gave us our conferences instead of integration. We didn’t have a choice. In the end it was better to have segregation with power, than segregation without power.”6

On that day in 1944 the Adventist Church stood at a crossroads. In one direction, a solution that mirrored the worst of what American society had to offer in the realm of race relations. In another direction, the hard work of “let[ting] justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”7 It is unfortunate that the church on that day chose the former instead of the latter. How fortunate for the church that after more than 70 years, a group of students at Andrews University have given the church another chance. Last week, in response to unequal treatment at Andrews University, students responded with "#ItIsTimeAU," a video broadly outlining decades of unfair treatment of people of color and asking the administration for an apology in one week, among other things. As I watched the reaction to this powerful message, responses ranged from all out support to ignorance and naiveté to strident and in some cases inappropriate criticism. As a recent alum of the seminary, I can personally testify to the fact that this discussion at Andrews University is long overdue. I am encouraged by the response of the administration so far, but the road to true equality and justice begins, not ends, with an apology. In the days and weeks to come (especially today at chapel) administration, faculty, and students will have to commit to the difficult task of not just listening but also lending credence to the voice of the aggrieved and oppressed so that true and lasting solutions can be formulated. This is the work that must be done, the path that must be taken, if our church is interested in reflecting the character of Christ.

In 2017 our flagship institution stands at the same crossroads where our church stood in 1944. I pray that we make a different decision than the one made that fateful day and decide to live out what God has always required of us—“to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly” with Him.8

 

1 Calvin B. Rock, Institutional Loyalty Versus Racial Freedom, (Ann Arbor , MI: University Microfilms International, 1984), 31.

2 Ibid.

3 The preceding recount is a condensation of material from Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, “Separate Black and White Conferences – Part I, The Sin We Don’t Want to Overcome,” http://www.drpipim.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=97&Itemid=51, (Accessed March 19, 2009).

4 The preceding section is a condensation from Rock, 239-241.

5 See Korateng-Pipim.

6 Jacob Justiss, Angels in Ebony, (Holland, OH: Jet Printing Service, 1975), 61.

7 Amos 5:24 NASB.

8 Micah 6:8 KJV

 

Image: Lucille Byard, adapted from Adventist Archives.

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at  www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

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