On February 17, 2022, Southern Adventist University celebrated its 130th anniversary as an institution, claiming Graysville Academy as its first predecessor when it was humbly established at the corner of Shelton Street and Dayton Avenue in Graysville, Tennessee, in 1892. Less than a year later, however, the academy that would eventually be called Southern refused service to the first Black student to walk through its doors.
A young woman of Black and white ancestry got off the train in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the first time. She carried very little, being from war-ravaged rural Mississippi. Most importantly, she carried a copy of the Review and Herald in her hand and a photo of a man who would be her caretaker while in town.
She risked everything to get there. Her community thought that too much religious dogma was plaguing her mind. She had read Steps to Christ by Ellen White in just three nights, reading only when her work in the fields was completed and after picking two hundred pounds of cotton to procure a Bible from her uncle. For the better half of a year, she had corresponded with Seventh-day Adventists. But would these Adventists be as nice to her in person as they were through their letters?
At the end of the harvest season, the young woman had taken her half of a bale of cotton and bought a ticket to find out the truth about God from the people she’d read so much about. If she died in a cyclone that wreaked havoc upon her community, would her soul have been saved at the final judgment? What did the Bible say? How could one be so sure?
She had to find out the truth for herself—a different truth than the traditional customs pastors had preached to her.
Ready to commit to the cause of Christ—whatever that really meant—young Anna Knight finally arrived in the Scenic City and was picked up by L. Dyo Chambers, the secretary-treasurer of the Southern Missionary Tract Society and Book Depository. After a week of prayer that concluded on December 31, 1892, Knight committed herself to be baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Graysville, Tennessee, a little town northeast of Chattanooga.
A new Adventist and determined to receive the highest standards of education, Knight enrolled at the fledgling Graysville Academy the first Monday after her baptism. Founded and funded by George Colcord sometime in mid-February 1892, Graysville Academy was the only school of its kind in the entire South. Many Adventists were encouraged to move to Graysville for the sole purpose of providing their children with a Christian education, and by the institution’s second semester, there were 60 students. By 1895, the school catalog distinctly included who was and who wasn’t wanted at the new academy: “All worthy persons of both sexes will be welcomed.”
On the morning of January 2, 1893, Anna Knight excitedly went about her studies. But by the afternoon, some of the students had told their parents about Knight’s “cursed” complexion. In turn, these parents complained to George Colcord, prompting the principal to have Anna come and visit him in his office. Knight had no idea what she was—a “mulatto.” In the care and community established by her well-known white and anti-Confederate father, Newton Knight, Anna had lived freely among her father’s other children and her Black siblings. “White Negro” Anna Knight was sheltered by the Jones County community, which one historian contends challenged the authority of the Confederacy in Mississippi and greatly opposed secession during the Civil War.” The principal, under threat of a massive loss in enrollment and possible violent destruction of his school, chose to have Knight wait until he could figure out who she truly was. Meanwhile, Knight remained in Graysville for over two months, rooming with the school’s matron and being taught privately—away from the eyes of the town’s overwhelmingly white majority.
Anna made her disappointment clear in her memoir, Mississippi Girl:
I never told any of my people of my disappointment although it was deep and bitter. I knew it was not the fault of the management of the school or of any of the faculty. The members of the church were all very kind to me and made me welcome at the church on Sabbath.
Anna Knight went on to become one of the greatest teachers and missionaries in Seventh-day Adventist history. For the next 70 years, she would continually pledge her life to Christ: She became the first African American woman and the first Adventist woman to serve as a missionary to India; partnered with organizations like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Atlanta to teach the community about personal hygiene, healthy dieting, and temperance; mobilized Black lay members for ministry throughout the Southern Union; and oversaw the success of dozens of Adventist schools. However, this first brutal encounter with racism stands as a testament to the core values that the school started in Graysville continues to uphold, whether knowingly or not.
The Case of Lucy Byard
In 1943, another Black Seventh-day Adventist woman boarded a train to an Adventist institution. However, Lucy Byard’s encounter with a church sanitarium had deadly implications. When then-Washington Sanitarium refused to serve a desperately ill Byard on account of race, they in effect sentenced her to death among her own people at Freedman’s Hospital, which would later be called Howard University Hospital.
Upon agreeing to a three-year management service with Howard University Hospital in 2020, now-Adventist Healthcare recognized the inherent need for redress. It would have been a terrible mistake if the institution did not acknowledge its significant racist past that became the final catalyst for Black-governed administrative bodies within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Under the leadership of President Terry Forde, Adventist Healthcare began planning an innovative form of corporate responsibility, beginning with the creation of an advisory board. Though never labeled as reparations, this form of reconciliation, outlined in 2021, is as follows:
1. A commissioned portrait of Byard by Simmie Knox, the first Black artist commissioned to paint a portrait of a sitting United States president.
2. A series of three scholarships in the name of Byard for outstanding nursing students with limited financial means (for Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama; Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland; and Howard University in Washington, D.C.).
3. $500,000 in scholarship funds over the first 5 years, with the goal of establishing an ongoing endowment.
General Conference President Ted Wilson, in a series of tweets, affirmed Adventist Healthcare’s reconciliation efforts and called the sending of Lucy Byard to her death a “reprehensible action” that “should never have happened since as Christians we are to serve and treat people with respect, dignity, love, and care as Jesus did.”
As a Christian, one might tend to agree with President Wilson’s call for us to be a part of “God’s ministry of reconciliation.” As Paul articulates in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21:
Anyone who is born again in Christ is a new creation. Old values have passed away and new values have taken over. All this was done for us by God… He has now given us the ministry of reconciliation and the privilege of inviting others to become His friends. It was through Christ that God reconciled the world to Himself by not holding our sins against us, but committing to us this message of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a biblical value, as is justice. Authors and historians alike have recognized over the last several decades the importance of “rememory.” As first articulated by author Toni Morrison in her seminal work Beloved and cited within one historian’s study of the Atlantic slave trade, rememory refers to the ways in which past events greatly affect the present and the future. Essentially, whether or not institutions intentionally accept and recognize the inherent effects of the past, the past still lives and breathes with us in our present. In Protest and Progress, C.B. Rock also contends that “Reconciliation does not mean organizing summits structured to promote fusion of cultures and denial of diversity. Rather, reconciliation means white Adventists apologizing for past indignities, and Black Adventists, in turn, forgiving and experiencing a cathartic relief of suspicions or even animosities that some may hold.”
A Partial Promise and Unfulfilled Dreams
When in February 2018 Southern Adventist University tried to make amends for over 125 years of racist acts, then-President David Smith apologized for Southern’s racist past and for personally not doing more to foster racial harmony on campus in a video that has since been removed from the university’s website but is still viewable on its YouTube channel:
I apologize for any mistreatment that Black students have faced during our history, and I apologize for not trying harder to understand these issues and the challenges that have kept students of color from having the experience they sought and they deserved. But more than apologize, I ask for forgiveness from you and any other individuals who have encountered discrimination while on our campus. I am sorry that your experience was so much less than what it should have been at a Christian university and I pledge a better day for our campus.
Among the president’s pledges, he included several ideas from his cabinet and the Student Association president (the sole African American in those meetings), among others:
1. Conducting focus groups designed to help the institution listen in open and honest dialogue to the concerns of students of color and their ideas for how the university can take action to address racist concerns.
2. Empowering the Diversity Committee to improve ways to address racist issues on campus; for instance, creating, promoting, and supporting programming that tackles diversity issues while developing an education process that will increase understanding and provide relevant resources.
3. Considering the best way to include diversity as a key consideration in the hiring practices of employees.
4. Creating a vice president for diversity (later rechristened “unity and inclusion”) on the president’s cabinet.
In closing statements, Smith solicited prayers as they sought to strive together to make Southern: “A place where it cannot be said that we do not care about, listen to, or support, or nurture all of our students and employees. Instead, may we become known as a school where students and employees alike exhibit and experience a Christlikeness in all that they do. May we become a model for racial harmony in a world increasingly divided and hateful.”
Four years later, the most significant promise of a vice president for “unity and inclusion” serving on the president’s cabinet has only been partially fulfilled, and what should have been a historic moment at Southern was largely forgotten.
Anna Knight (courtesy of the Center for Adventist Research)
The Process of Reconciliation
Although it is nearly 130 years after Anna Knight’s rejection by the school at Graysville, Southern may still begin the long process of healing and reconciliation toward its Black students and estranged Black alumni. Taking full ownership and responsibility for the sensitive nature of Knight’s first attempt at an Adventist education would take a strong step toward tangibly addressing difficult institutional history.
I would like to offer three frameworks for reconciliation at Southern Adventist University, though reparations should never be limited to these three ideas.
Commemoration: In at least two of the three newest buildings on Southern’s campus, there should be an opportunity to name a room after a Black woman like Anna Knight—which would represent the first anything named after a person of color on the campus. I would like to challenge Southern to commemorate the memory of Anna Knight in the commissioning of a portrait (as was done by Adventist Healthcare for Lucy Byard); the naming of a classroom within Summerour Hall (the Education & Psychology building) or AdventHealth Hall (the Nursing building) with the commissioned portrait and a plaque included; and also, the promise of future collaborations (through possible education and nursing symposiums) with the Anna Knight Women’s Leadership Center & Museum on the campus of Oakwood University.
Scholarships: Similar to the Lucy Byard Scholarship established for nurses of color in need across three different universities and the Anna Knight Memorial Scholarship established at Jones Community College in Mississippi, Southern has the opportunity to establish a scholarship in honor of Anna Knight. Southern should choose to seek out prominent donors who believe in Anna Knight’s core values of education in the South. This scholarship could provide an educational opportunity to Black students in the nursing and education programs on the campus.
Reparative: Anna Knight was not permitted to gain an Adventist education for more than a single day during the 1892-1893 school year. For years afterward, she attended faraway schools like the now-defunct Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio and eventually the now-closed Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. In a striking move, Southern could choose to honor Anna Knight at any institution of higher education’s most momentous and public celebration: the commencement service of the spring graduation. The 2023 graduation ceremony would mark the 130th anniversary of Knight’s semester at Graysville Academy. Such an honor should award her dual nursing and education honorary bachelor’s degrees in honor of her work as a missionary and teacher, primarily in India and the South. Similar to the way that Adventist Healthcare found a descendant of Lucy Byard to be present for the ceremony honoring her memory, Southern has an opportunity to honor Anna Knight’s legacy through someone like her great-niece, Dorothy Knight Marsh, who rewrote Knight’s autobiography Mississippi Girl, and fights to keep her great-aunt’s legacy alive.
Only two hours from Southern, the closest distance between two Adventist institutions of higher education in North America, Oakwood University has offered several visible reminders of Anna Knight’s legacy on its campus. Knight spent her final years living on campus at then-Oakwood College. Upon her death in 1972, her possessions were given to her great-niece, Dorothy Knight Marsh, who gifted the papers and memorabilia to Oakwood.
In the last few decades, nearly all of the institutions impacted by Anna Knight’s legacy have recognized her in some way: In 1971, the General Conference awarded Knight the Medallion of Merit, the highest level of recognition in the Adventist Church; some time after her death, the elementary school on the campus of then-Oakwood College was named the Anna Knight Elementary School (this old elementary school building became Anna Knight Hall); In 1990, the Anna Knight Christian Service Award was announced and unveiled at the General Conference Session; In 2005, the Giffard Memorial Hospital in Nuzvid, India, built the Anna Knight Nurses Hostel to honor her legacy as the first Black female Christian missionary nurse; In 2009, the Jones County Community College in Mississippi established the Anna Knight Memorial Scholarship, designed to provide scholarship assistance to students pursuing a degree in nursing or education; In the Historic Adventist Village in Battle Creek, Michigan, Anna Knight’s life is profiled in a museum installation, highlighting her contributions.
At Southern Adventist University, there is no such reminder of Anna Knight’s legacy, outside of one historian’s minor error in misnaming her “Annie” in a history of the institution published for its centennial celebration in 1992. Her contributions from later returning as a nursing teacher for a summer are highlighted, but the story of how she was prohibited from an education on campus is not included. As an African American burgeoning historian and student leader, I struggled publicly with Southern’s legacy of racism. In 2018, as Student Association president, I created multiple projects in support of the concept of rememory on campus, providing the first showcase of Anna Knight’s contributions to the public outside of the institution’s centennial tome.
Anna Knight may have felt that no wrong was done by the school’s management or its faculty, but public commemoration has also been given to those who should cause us pause. George H. Colcord, while the first principal of Graysville Academy and its primary donor, left Knight to take classes alone with the matron of the school as a response to the community’s racist uproar. In a time of verifiable violence against Sabbath-keepers and private school proponents, perhaps Colcord thought he was making the wisest decision for his fledgling Christian academy. Unfortunately, this decision went against the school’s creed in its catalog: “All worthy persons of both sexes will be welcomed.” Anna Knight, a biracial woman, was not welcomed to the academy. Less than a year later, Colcord begged her to return to the Graysville school, but Anna elected to attend another academy and eventually Battle Creek Sanitarium for her nursing degree. While she would often return to Graysville because she loved her small community there, she never set foot into the school except to teach for one summer, albeit under a different academic administration.
Knight’s legacy has been disregarded in favor of highlighting and immortalizing other problematic individuals in Southern’s history, such as Lynn H. Wood, a former president of Southern and avowed racist. Upon relocating to then-Emmanuel Missionary College, now Andrews University, some years later, Wood reinstituted policies in support of racial segregation, a legacy that Andrews University has, especially in the last five years, addressed. Southern’s oldest standing building near the center of campus is named after Lynn H. Wood, as well as its archaeological museum within the religion building. Indeed, if there is room for buildings named after known-racist white men, then there should be room for spaces on campus named after Black pioneers, especially women, and their contributions.
If then-President Smith, along with the president’s cabinet and student leadership, promised that Southern would “become a model for racial harmony in a world increasingly divided and hateful,” then that challenge still stands. Will Southern take this opportunity to re-address its racist wrongs? Will future administrations re-commit themselves to the process of racial reconciliation in the face of unfulfilled promises? Will Black alumni, students, faculty, and staff be forced to continue their exhausting and seemingly never-ending push for parity?
The purpose of an institution of higher education is to teach pupils, foster learning, and champion their students. In the last decade, Southern, along with other Adventist institutions of higher education in the North American Division, has suffered a general loss of students over time. Southern, more specifically, has seen a net loss of 200 Black students, with a significant drop-off in the last two years—36 Black students lost between Fall 2020 and Fall 2021. Though it would be an overgeneralization to attribute this loss in students only to racial difficulties in the last decade, as there has been a general loss at every Adventist institution of higher education in North America, an ongoing pandemic, as well as the addition of a “two or more races” category in the university’s statistics, a conversation with strategic action points surrounding Southern’s fractured legacy offers an opportunity. As administrators and advancement officers ask the questions: “Where are the Black students?” and “Why are the Black students not coming to Southern?” I’d like to offer the past as an authority and further contextualize why then-President Smith included the popular Southern perception amongst Black Adventists: “Is Southern racist?” The university must commit itself to reconciliation before more time elapses.
The time has passed for reparations for Anna Knight, but for the hundreds of Black students who have since attended Southern since they were first allowed in February 1965, the time to reconcile is right now. May Southern’s leadership, employees, students, and alumni be reminded of the spirit of Paul when he wrote, “Old values have passed away and new values have taken over.” This should be a time for reconciliation and rememory, but if the institution does not take a more aggressive hold of its racist narrative, it may find itself in a precarious position for potential students of color who are mindful of a history that often erases them and their contributions. Such a massive legacy of blackness should never be underrepresented in the ongoing commemoration of Adventist heroes on campus, whether through scholarships, cultural spaces, or through the naming of prominent buildings. As Black alumni, students, employees, and as allies of the aforementioned groups, let us keep the institution accountable.
Notes & References:
1. Anna Knight, Mississippi Girl, an Autobiography (Southern Pub. Association, 1952), 31.
2. Ibid., 31; Dennis Lynn Pettibone, A Century of Challenge: The Story of Southern College, 1892-1992 (Collegedale, TN: Board of Trustees, Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, 1992), 15-19.
3. Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones : Mississippi's Longest Civil War, The Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 135-160.
4. Dorothy Knight Marsh, From Cotton Fields to Mission Fields: The Anna Knight Story (Morrisville, North Carolina: Lulu Publishing Services, 2016), 25.
5. Anna Knight, Mississippi Girl, 32.
6. Dorothy Knight Marsh, From Cotton Fields to Mission Fields, 148. In 1911, Anna Knight started keeping a comprehensive record of her work. By the time she retired to then-Oakwood College, she had conducted 9,388 meetings, made 11,744 missionary visits, wrote 48,918 letters, and traveled 554,439—not including the miles traveled in India. Such wide-ranging work cements Knight’s legacy as a crucial Adventist pioneer. Also, see Anna Knight, Mississippi Girl, 223.
7. Benjamin Baker, “March 2019 Feature: The Lucy Byard Story,” March 2019 Feature: The Lucy Byard Story, Visitor Magazine, March 4, 2019, https://columbiaunionvisitor.com/2019/march-2019-feature-lucy-byard-story; Calvin B. Rock, Protest & Progress: Black Seventh-Day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018), 42-45.
8. Shanna Muschik and Alonda Thomas, “Adventist Healthcare and Howard University Hospital Sign Management Services Agreement,” Adventist HealthCare, February 6, 2020, https://www.adventisthealthcare.com/news/2020/howard-university-hospital-management-services-agreement-signed/; Corinne Kuypers-Denlinger, “The Life and Legacy of Lucy Byard Honored at Recognition Event,” Adventist Review, December 18, 2021, https://adventistreview.org/news/the-life-and-legacy-of-lucy-byard-honored-at-recognition-event/;
9. Ted Wilson, Twitter Post, December 10, 2021, 7:49 PM, https://twitter.com/pastortedwilson/status/1469469477721059329.
10. 2. Cor. 5:16-20 The Clear Word.
11. Calvin B. Rock, Protest & Progress: Black Seventh-Day Adventist Leadership and the Push for Parity (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018), 221, 222; Anne C. Bailey, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 140.
12. Southern Adventist University, “Statement from Southern Adventist University President David Smith,” YouTube Video, 5:02, February 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZSV6lmfJxQ&t=295s.
13. Ibid., 2:48-3:14.
14. Dorothy Knight Marsh, From Cotton Fields to Mission Fields, 151-154.
15. Dennis Lynn Pettibone, A Century of Challenge, 22, 25.
16. Phillip Warfield and Janell Hullquist, “Southern Celebrates Cultural Diversity,” Southern Celebrates Cultural Diversity | Southern Adventist University, 2018, https://www.southern.edu/connect/celebrates/; Phillip Warfield, “Student Association President,” Student Leadership, 2018, https://www.phillipwarfield.com/leadership.
17. Dorothy Knight Marsh, From Cotton Fields to Mission Fields, 30; Anna Knight, Mississippi Girl, 32; Dennis Lynn Pettibone, A Century of Challenge, 16.
18. Marcos Paseggi, “Andrews University Takes Bold Steps to Foster Racial Reconciliation,” Adventist Review Online, February 2, 2017. https://adventistreview.org/news/andrews-university-takes-bold-steps-to-foster-racial-reconciliation/.
19. Both Presidents Lynn H. Wood and H.J. Klooster became presidents of Emmanuel Missionary College, now-Andrews University; however, both presidents implemented racial segregation during their days at Southern as well as at Andrews, as cited in: Douglas Morgan, Change Agents: The Lay Movement That Challenged the System and Turned Adventism toward Racial Justice (Westlake Village, CA: Oak & Acorn Publishing, 2020), 151.
20. Current data retrieved from private correspondence with a faculty member of the university.
21. 2. Cor. 5:17 The Clear Word.
Phillip Warfield is a professional historian-in-training and digital storyteller. He graduated from Southern Adventist University with a bachelor’s degree in history and minors in English, religion, education, and cultural communication. Currently, he’s completing a PhD in United States History and serving as a graduate assistant at the Howard University Social Justice Consortium in Washington, DC.
Title image: Anna Knight / aerial view of Southern Adventist University
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