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Article by Dr. Ralph Luker
Church, School, and Social Settlement:
Recalling Boggs Academy
Ralph E. Luker Reprinted with permission
Thinking back over my checkered past the other night, I remembered spending the 1963-64 academic year as an assistant chaplain-intern at Boggs Academy in Burke County, near Keysville, Georgia. It was not founded until 1910, but like many private African American schools established after the Civil War, it began in lieu of any public schools for African American students in the South. The population of Burke County was still two-thirds African American when I was there in the early 1960s, but it had no public secondary school for African American young people until 1950.
Conditions for African Americans in Burke County in the early 1960s were as bad as they were in darkest rural Mississippi. The transcript of an interview of Wilhelmina Robinson (scroll down) only begins to tell it: rigid segregation, curfews for African Americans, don't even think about registering to vote! We heard stories of black men and women who feared they'd be killed if they tried to leave their shabby cabin on the white man's farm or plantation in Burke County. Somehow, over the years, Boggs Academy had negotiated a settlement that allowed both white and black people to serve on its faculty. The school began primarily to serve the local African American community, but after the public school opened in 1950 Boggs increasingly began to function as a prep school for the African American middle class in cities from Savannah to New York. One of my students was Martin Luther King's niece, whose father sent her to Boggs Academy, away from the racial violence of Birmingham.
Only in retrospect, I think, do I understand how much I learned that year – from dedicated faculty colleagues and talented students, as well. Only now, do I understand that it influenced even some of the ways I've interpreted history. Looking at the website of the school's alumni, I was moved – almost to tears -- to learn of the deaths of two of my students, in particular: Ulysses Dove and Willis Daniels. Before his death in 1996, Dove had become a major professional dancer and choreographer. I felt close to Daniels because he'd left Boggs for a summer at Phillips-Exeter and to become one of the first African Americans to graduate from Duke, my alma mater. Others, like Jonathan Glenn, Clemson's second African American student and, now, a gastronomist in Savannah, still play key professional roles.
I was fortunate to work with such students at a critical time in the South. I won't forget the announcement of President Kennedy's assassination that interrupted my class one day. Shortly thereafter, the students sent letters to Senators Richard B. Russell and Herman Talmadge urging them to support President Johnson's civil rights legislation. There wasn't a chance that they would, but it didn't hurt to remind the old boys that they had black constituents. Months later, we took the school's VW bus into Augusta one Saturday night and were surely the first integrated group to test whether the city's movie theaters would admit African Americans without discrimination. It was by no means obvious, because federal public accommodations laws had just been signed by Johnson and Augusta was a mean-spirited city in those days. We were fortunate not to face opposition and enjoyed watching Elizabeth Taylor starring as Cleopatra. My students were remarkably courageous.
One weekend, I invited the (white) Episcopal and Roman Catholic priests to be on a panel discussion for our students on "Ecumenism" – that is, relations among diverse Christian denominations. The Roman Catholic priest felt almost as isolated in the overwhelmingly Protestant Georgia countryside as I did, shunned as I was by virtually all of the white people around me. The Episcopal priest, however, had that Anglican hauteur – that, however small our numbers might be, we are the church. I'm sure he was surprised when two of my Episcopal students came up to him afterwards and told him that they'd like to receive holy communion. With some quick questions, he established that they were, in fact, Episcopalians in good standing. He might have come out to the Academy and administered a special service of holy communion for them, but they meant that they wanted to receive holy communion at his church. I had some very amusing correspondence with the Episcopal Bishop of Savannah in the days thereafter, in which I inquired about that possibility. His reply dripped with condescension, as he indicated that I should keep my sectarian nose out of the business of the Church. Finally, one Sunday morning, in fear and trembling, I drove my two African American Episcopal students into Waynesboro, the county seat. As we approached the Episcopal church, I saw police cars parked at every corner. We had been told that I should let the students out of the car just a block from the church. I watched them carefully, as they walked that block and were admitted. The only report I had from the Episcopal priest was that when he turned away from prayers at the altar to face the congregation, he was amused to see my two students sitting in the pew just in front of the county sheriff. My students were unafraid.
But I said that, in retrospect, I think that teaching at Boggs Academy had a subsequent influence on some of the history that I've published. Specifically, it is this, at least. In The Social Gospel in Black and White, I laid out an argument that challenged traditional interpretations of the origins of social settlements here in the United States. Given the importance of Jane Addams and her Hull House in Chicago, earlier historians had argued that the experience of Addams and others in visiting England's Toynbee Hall had persuaded them of the usefulness of middle-class reformers settling in working class communities for mutual influence and learning.
That certainly seemed to me to be true for settlement houses in largely immigrant communities in the urban North. But concurrently with those social settlements in urban immigrant communities, I argued, Northern missions were planted in the urban and rural South. Those missions were the seed of institutions that might become one or more than one thing: a church, a school, a social settlement – or, even, all three of those things. Here, in Atlanta, for instance, Northern white Congregational missionaries had planted a seed and from it grew First Congregational Church which was initially bi-racial and served by white pastors. Now, it is one of the elite African American churches of the city, served by black pastors for the last 110 years. But from it also grew the Storrs School, the first private elementary school for African American students in the city. From it also grew Atlanta University, now merged as Clark-Atlanta University, one of the most important African American universities in the country. And within Atlanta University, the men and women who were concerned about the plight of struggling people of color established the Atlanta School of Social Work, where workers in private and public social service could study and win credentials in their field.
In part because I was focusing on the South and on African American history, specifically, I argued that social settlements in the United States had roots – not only in the transplantation of the English experience at Toynbee Hall – but in the seeds that Yankee missionaries planted in the South in the decades after the Civil War. Only now do I realize that my students at Boggs Academy – Ulysses Dove, Willis Daniels, Joyce Young, Bucky McGraw, Jonathan Glenn, the kids who went with me to see Elizabeth Taylor star as Cleopatra, the two young men who walked into Waynesboro, Georgia's Episcopal Church to sit in the pew in front of the county sheriff to take holy communion by his side at the altar – lent me their courage, but I also think that Boggs Academy made me think about the seeds from which institutions grow.
In 1984, Boggs Academy finally closed its doors as a school for the children of black middle class people up and down the Atlantic seaboard. But its John I. Blackburn Presbyterian Church still opens during the week and on Sunday mornings for black folk in the rural countryside; and the buildings of the Academy, itself, have been re-appropriated as a rural social center, hosting all kinds of activities for the local community, as it had been doing since 1910.
Article by Ronald Roach
Michael N. Searles:
"The Life and Legacy of Boggs Academy"
Carol A. Morton. Appeared in Ebony - 1975:
"The Prep: Private Institutions"