Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School president sets an example.
Following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, the newly formed Black Student Caucus at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School decided it was time for change on the nearly all-white campus.
They demanded more black representation in the faculty and board of trustees and the creation of a Black Church studies program. They brought Mahalia Jackson to town twice in one year and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Nearly a year went by. The school leadership said the right things but wanted more time.
“The trustees said we were asking just a little too much too quickly,” the Rev. John S. Walker recalled. “(But) we called them demands, not requests or recommendations. And that’s when we decided to lock up the school.”
For 19 days in 1969, the South Goodman Street campus was brought to a halt in a successful protest that established the Divinity School as a leader in civil rights among its peers.
The Black Student Caucus, which engineered the protest, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Many of those who stayed inside the school in March 1969 will be back in Rochester this week for a commemoration.
There will be a jubilee worship service at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5 at Genesee Baptist Church, with Bishop T. Anthony Bronner as guest preacher.
There is then a gala dinner at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Colgate Rochester. Tickets are $50 or two for $90. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (585) 271-1320.
More: Historic Colgate Rochester building expected to become hotel
‘An attitude of slave mentality’
The divinity school gained had a strong reputation in the early 20th century for producing talented black theologians and preachers, including Howard University President Mordecai Johnson and philosopher Howard Thurman.
Nonetheless, in 1968 it was structured like most other large institutions in Rochester, and more broadly in academia: led almost exclusively by white people, with little motivation to change.
“It was just an attitude of slave mentality, and that came from out in the community,” said the Rev. Bobby Joe Saucer, another founding member of the caucus. “Most of us were from the South and had come up through the Civil Rights protest movement. It was easy for our eyes to see, and to respond to, insensitivity. The administration, while they meant well, really did not know what was happening.”
The caucus was formed in September 1967, then accelerated its activities after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. The students held a public memorial service and demanded the creation of a Black Church studies program.
The administration asked the students to raise half the cost of an endowed professorship and they did, including through a banquet featuring King’s parents as guests of honor.
In December, they expanded their demands: 11 black trustees on the 36-person board, including three on the executive board; four black professors to fill the five current vacancies; and one black administrator.
They set a deadline of March 1 and the trustees let it pass. One of the caucus members went to a hardware store in the city and bought the biggest chain and padlock he could find.
The morning of Sunday, March 2, 19 black seminarians entered Strong Hall, the main academic and administrative building. Inside they met some custodians and one of their professors, Winthrop Hudson, who left when asked.
They hoisted a black flag on the roof and wrote on a classroom blackboard: “School closed until our demands are met.” The lockout had begun.
For 19 days, the students organized regular worship services and played basketball in the gym to pass the time. They promised not to look through the school’s records or to eat the food in the cafeteria.
Instead, white and black supporters brought them food, putting it into a basket that was pulled up onto the balcony.
“People in the community brought food every day — especially the poor people — and they were telling us, ‘Hold on, hold on,'” Walker, now the pastor at Christian Friendship Baptist Church in Henrietta, recalled.
The president of the seminary was Gene Bartlett. Walker and Saucer praised him as a man of integrity and faith who stood up for the protesting students to the board of trustees.
“It was never a question about their Christian integrity and commitment,” said Saucer, who went on to become dean of the Morehouse School of Religion. “I can’t ever say I sensed they were upset. They were more concerned with: How can we do ethically and morally what has been omitted, and how can we move on from this as a Christian community?”
There was some tension inside the building as negotiations went on. Some of the students, including Walker, planned to graduate that spring and hoped classes could resume in time to permit it.
When the lockout was lifted on March 20, the seminarians had achieved all their goals, and none faced any discipline from the school.
“The sympathies, the mood, the hopes of the faculty and the white students were in that building, too,” Bartlett said later, according to a school history. “These were, moreover, men for whom we had great respect. I have to tell you, I doubt if there are any 19 men we could gather who have as much basic ability, commitment and Christian concern as the men who were locked in that building.”
A leader among seminaries
The most prominent achievement for the school was the creation of the Black Church studies program, the first of its kind in the country. It remains active today.
Seminarians at Colgate Rochester today have three course requirements to prepare them for a diverse ministry: Black Church studies, women in ministry and a course on LGBTQ rights.
“We’ve got to keep listening to people who say they belong to the church but the church doesn’t belong to them,” President Marvin McMickle said.
Of the seven current faculty members, McMickle is the only black professor, but he said the school hopes to find another person of color for a current vacancy.
Damond Wilson, the current Black Student Caucus president, said he believes Colgate Rochester continues to lead seminaries across the country in terms of social justice — part of the legacy of the 1969 lockout.
“At the base of what they were doing was being able to have their voice heard, and that definitely is life-changing, because in this day there are definitely situations where people’s voices aren’t being heard,” he said. “Even though the avenue might change, the conversation is still the same.”