American Baptist College
American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee was founded in the year 1924 as American Baptist Theological Seminary. The college was founded to create and train Christian workers and black Baptist ministers. It is a private, coed college that offers both undergraduate and graduate courses. It grew out of a conversation between the National Baptist leaders and Dr. O.L. Hailey, who was one of the founding fathers of the college (A Rich History). The college came out of a collaboration between the National Baptist convention and the Southern Baptist convention. They both established committees to build a college in Memphis. The location was later changed to Nashville. The college is known for the role its students played in the civil rights movement and for the education of black clergy that included both men and women. In 2013, it was designated as a Historic Black College and University.
Backstory and Context
The college was started by both black and white Baptists and its mission is to educate and prepare predominantly African American students to play a part in service to humanity, Christian leadership as well as social justice. The college aims to serve underserved students who might not have the educational experience but have Christian leadership skills. The college does not just focus on a spiritual education but also gives importance to the moral, intellectual, and social development of its students. It places a strong emphasis on liberal arts education. The commitment to serve through a Christ-centered mission has led to the college offering education to people without discriminating based on race, ethnicity, age, and class (Our Mission). The college is accredited with the Association for Biblical Higher Education. It is also recognized by the US government as a Historically Black College and University since 2013 as it was founded before 1964 and its aim was to educate and train African American students. This recognition makes the college eligible for federal grants of up to $250,000 every year. The government approves it to take in foreign students and train US veterans. The committees of the National Baptist convention and the Southern Baptist Convention originally managed the college. The National Baptist Convention gave money initially to buy the land for the college and its buildings. The Southern Convention contributed by offering scholarships and fiscal support. The first building of the college came up in 1923 and was named Griggs Hall. A board of trustees was formed to manage the college. In 1996, the Southern convention turned over its assets to the board of trustees. Although the college was started as a seminary to teach rural black students, it changed into a liberal arts college in 1971. The college is committed towards educating students and making them leaders in the fields of social justice, Christian leadership and more.
The college played an important role in the civil rights movement and many of its students went on to become important figures in the civil rights movement. The college made an impact in an era when the black Baptist was not even spoken about. Explaining why the college played such an important role in the civil rights movement, David Halberstam writes that "It was a place without pretense, without class lines...But at a time when the black church was becoming the driving force of a larger social revolution taking place in the United States, American Baptist had become a magnet for many of the most talented and passionate young blacks in the country (Halberstam 65).” The young black men and women who wanted to serve their community came to the college as it had gifted teachers and filled with political passion. The brilliant students also looked towards serving their community through Baptist ministry. Reverend Kelly Miller Smith Sr sent students from the college to non-violent workshops organized by James Lawson Jr, a divinity student at the Vanderbilt college (Smith & Wynn 83). The location of the college in Nashville also played an important role in its participation in the civil rights movements. Nashville was where the sit-in movements were methodically tried and tested. It was also the place where a number of civil rights leaders got started. Some of the American Baptist College students who participated in the sit-ins include Congressman John Lewis, Dr. Julius Scruggs, and Dr. Bernard Lafayette. Although similar sit-ins happened earlier in other places, the movement gained momentum soon after the college students in Nashville started their organized protests. Braving insults and sometimes physical attacks from the segregation supporters, the students sat bravely at lunch counters across the state. This action led to the improvement in the lives of many blacks in the south. The students marched and sat in public spaces and lunch counters despite the threats of arrests and physical assaults. They soldiered on bravely until they could win equal rights for everyone. The college with its open structure and acceptance served as a command post during the civil rights movement as the students for organized and trained here in non-violent tactics. The role played by the students of the American Baptist college during the civil rights movement was enormous. They served as an inspiration for many others who joined them or did similar protests in other states.
Some of the notable alumni of the college include, John Lewis who was a Georgia Congressman and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. C.T Vivian served in the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson and was the national deputy director for clergy. Leroy Gilbert served as the chaplain of the United States Coast Guard. The college’s commitment to help the disadvantaged and serve the people has attracted many students to its campus. Apart from classes in the campus, the college also offers several online courses. The college’s involvement with social justice causes, human rights and equal rights did not end with the civil rights movements. It continues to play a part in questioning the atrocities being committed against the black community in the country. On Dec 31, 2014 it hosted youth activists from Fergusson, Chicago and Nashville in a retreat that discussed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric garner and developed future strategies to deal with the problem. The college president referred to the college as an incubator of social justice (Hale). The college not only teaches its students moral, religious, and ethical values but also encourages them to put what they have learned into action.
The American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee might not be a well-endowed college, but it attracts passionate, talented people who want to help their community and others. It played a very important part in the civil rights movement and continues to involve itself in social justice causes. The political and social involvement of its students and teachers come from the mission of the college. One of the missions of the college is to create great leaders in the Christian movement as well as the social justice movement. The college has stayed true to its mission over the years by producing many civil rights leaders as well as ministers and other political leaders. Being recognized as a Historical Black College and University has given it honor and federal funding and scholarship. The college was a result of a collaboration between the National Baptists and the Southern Baptist convention. It brought them together to work on starting a college to teach African Americans theology and leadership skills. The college is accepting of everyone and invited a married, lesbian preacher to deliver a lecture in its campus. Although the move was condemned by many pastors, the college did not waver from its decision. The college has steadfastly remained true to its commitment towards social justice and the education of African American men and women.
A Rich History. Abcnash.edu N.d. Accessed December 05, 2017. www.abcnash.edu/about/history.
Halberstam, David. The Children. New York, NY. Random House, 1998.
Hale, Steven. "American Baptist College Hosts Youth Activists From Ferguson, Chicago, Nashville." Nashville Scene(Nashville), December 31, 2014.
Smith, Jessie Carney. Wynn, Linda T. Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience. Canton, MI. Visible Ink Press, 2009.