Black History Month: A Time to Remember and to Give Thanks
By Mackie L. Harper Norris
As you probably are aware, the celebration of African American History Month began as a weeklong event in 1926 and was spearheaded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson as a means to pay tribute to the accomplishments and contributions of people of African descent. Dr. Woodson chose February for the celebration to coincide with the birth dates of former President Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. While the celebration itself has grown from a weeklong event to a month-long observance, it is not without criticism. One source of disagreement is based on the contention that African American history is American history and should be treated thusly. Whether one agrees or disagrees, it is clear that African Americans have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to American life.
I am a rather recent returnee to the North Georgia Conference, although I have been a United Methodist for most of my life and was a member of South Atlanta (now Henry M. White) Methodist Church in the early ‘60s and again 1968-72. When I read the historical account of Methodism in North Georgia in the work by Hershel Sheets, I recall and can relate to some of the pioneers mentioned in his discussion about blacks in Methodism in North Georgia. It seems appropriate, therefore, to highlight these stalwart leaders as we celebrate African American History Month.
The church in general, and the United Methodist Church in particular, has benefited from contributions of African Americans even before merger. The North Georgia Conference merged into one conference in 1971 following the general church merger in 1968. Some of the key African American participants in the process were: Reverends A. C. Epps, J. D. Grier, C. L. Henderson, C. S. Stinson, Frank W. Montgomery, Robert Stovall, M. J. Wynn, P. Harold Gray, M. J. Jones, E. W. McMillan, A. S. Dickerson, Harry Backstrom, and laity including Dr. Earle Wilson, Mr. James Jackson, and Ms. Lillie F. Arnold.
Since merger, one African American clergy has been elected to the Episcopacy from the conference, Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson. The conference has elected one African American conference lay leader, Mr. Reuben Perry, and several African American lay and clergy delegates have been elected as delegates to General and Jurisdictional conferences. The conference has had several African American District Superintendents appointed by the resident bishop. Mrs. Marie Copher served as the first African American president of the conference’s United Methodist Women. In 1982, the Rev. Martha Randall was the first African American female ordained an Elder in Full Connection. The Rev. Wimbley Hale and the Rev. Alfred Hoard, and later the Rev. Joseph Crawford were among the earliest African Americans ordained Elder in the North Georgia Conference.
Within the boundaries of the North Georgia Conference lie two significant African American educational institutions, Clark Atlanta University and Gammon Theological Seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center. A third educational institution that is a part of two Wesleyan denominations, Paine College in Augusta, is also within the conference boundaries and is supported by both the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) and the United Methodist Church. Other institutions include Bethlehem Community Center, now a part of Wesley Community Centers.
In many instances Sunday worship hour remains the most segregated hour in the week. True merger does not happen until it happens in the hearts and minds of those involved. The United Methodist Church is not without its continuing dilemmas around race, culture, class and other issues that can serve as dividers. But the North Georgia Conference has come a long way and that is cause for celebration. We continue to struggle, both black and white, but we know if we keep our eyes and hearts stayed on Jesus and His teachings, we will rise to overcome all obstacles that would prevent the coming of the Kingdom of God. To God be the glory for the road we have successfully trod.
Dr. Mackie L. Harper Norris and her husband, Bishop Alfred L. Norris, live in Jonesboro. Dr. Norris is author of the booklet: “African American History Month Daily Devotions, 2010,” published by Abingdon Press. You can get a copy through our Cokesbury bookstores.