Jemar Tisby: Seminary’s Report on Slavery Is Only a Start for Southern Baptists’ Reckoning With Racism

Norton Hall houses the president’s office at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Just over 100 years ago, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was on the brink of financial collapse.

The school’s trustees were thinking about closing the doors.

Then a man named Joseph E. Brown made a $50,000 donation to save the school.

The seminary’s leaders hailed the gift as an answer to prayer. They eventually honored Brown, who also served as governor of Georgia and a member of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, with a professorship in his name.

They never had a second thought about where the money came from.

Joseph E. Brown, the secessionist
governor of Georgia during the Civil
War. Photo courtesy of
LOC/Creative Commons

Brown gained his wealth on the backs of incarcerated black men through the heinous practice of convict leasing. His business, Dade Coal Company, paid the state a fee for the work of incarcerated men and, in turn, worked these laborers under draconian conditions.

As journalist David Oshinsky has written, it was a fate “worse than slavery.”

The story of Joseph E. Brown and his connection to SBTS is just one of the many sordid tales unearthed in the seminary’s newly published “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”

Commissioned by the school’s president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., it gives “a candid acknowledgment of the legacy of this school in the horrifying realities of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and even the avowal of white racial supremacy.”

The report on slavery and racism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary does not shy away from an honest accounting of the institution’s history. But it does leave readers with the impression that racism is solely a relic of the seminary’s past.

The report abruptly ends in the early 1960s with Martin Luther King Jr.’s controversial visit to the seminary. Historian Greg Wills, main author of the report, describes the backlash from donors that followed King’s visit, including a letter from one disgruntled Baptist congregation.

“We voted not to contribute even one cent to an institution whose president would permit a man like Martin Luther King to appear as a speaker before our future preachers,” the church wrote.

But there’s more to the story.

Evangelicals — including Southern Baptists — have continued to demonstrate complicity with racism since the civil rights era and to the present day. From slavery to Jim Crow segregation, and now in the post-civil rights era, the narrative of white racial superiority persists, particularly among white evangelicals.

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Source: Religion News Service