The Beginning of Regional Conferences in the US IIISeptember 5, 2006
In October 1928, W. H. Green—the Colored Secretary of the General Conference (GC)—died. His position was not filled immediately as many Black ministers felt that “the only way to improve the work among Negroes of the country is to organize colored conferences, whereby the colored people may handle their own money, employ their own workers and so develop administrative ability and all cultural lines of work…to organize Negro conferences that would function in exactly the same relation to the General Conference as white conferences.” (Quoted in Jacob Justiss Angels in Ebony p46.)
After discussion, the GC appointed a commission of eleven Whites and five Blacks to study the issue. J. K. Humphrey had been one of the Black ministers calling for Black Conferences and was one of those appointed to the commission. Humphrey later accused the White members of the committee of meeting separately and asking the Black members of the committee to rubber-stamp their decision that Black Conferences were not appropriate. Humphrey later left the SDA Church and formed the United Sabbath Day Adventist Church.
J. K. Humphrey
By 1944 however, the situation had changed—the Black membership of the church had grown considerably and Black members were better educated and more confident than in the past. This lead a group of Black SDA laity to form the National Association for the Advancement of World-wide Work Among Colored Seventh-day Adventists on October 16, 1943. The group was chaired by Joseph T. Dodson, other members included Eva B. Dykes—one of the first Black American woman to receive a PhD, while the Corresponding Secretary was Valarie Justiss—the second SDA Black woman to receive a PhD.
Eva B. Dykes
The group met on at least two occasions with J. L. McElheney—GC President. They presented a petition entitled Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among SDAs? to the GC leadership in Washington DC. (The document takes it’s name from the State of the Union address given by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941. The four freedoms were:
1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of every person to worship God in his own way
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear (See Wikipedia entry. See a copy of the speech.)
The group was not requesting the formation of Black conferences but rather recommending an end to racial discrimination in all SDA institutions. Graham states that the group also “asked for a full accounting of the money that Black people were contributing to the denomination and requested that their Black leaders be treated with courtesy.” (Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation” in Perspectives: Black Seventh-Day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century Calvin B. Rock ed. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1996, 136)
Racial discrimination was rife at SDA institutions and the Four Freedoms document did not hesitate to point out specific cases:
· “The Washington Sanitarium refuses to admit colored people.”
· “Colored girls are denied admittance to the Washington sanitarium School of Nurses and some other schools open to the whites.”
· It was the policy of Emmanuel Missionary College to seat Black students at the rear during chapel services.
· “There are no Negroes so far as we know on staffs of Adventist institutions.”
· “There is not even one General Conference office filled by a colored person.”
· “There is no colored editor, circulation manager, and business manager of the only Adventist periodical devoted exclusively to the interest of the 13,000,000 colored people in the United States.”
The document draws frequent contrast between SDA practice in these areas and the practices of secular or other religious organizations. These include:
“Since white and colored eat without friction daily in the cafeterias of the Library of Congress, Union Station, National Art Gallery, Interior Department, and other government buildings, it is illegal to segregate the Secretary of the Colored department for his meals.” (All quotes from Shall the Four Freedoms Function Among SDAs?
One of the impetuses for the petition was the tragic case of Lucy Byard. Byard was a light-skinned Black SDA from Brooklyn who was admitted to the SDA owned and operated Washington Sanitarium and hospital based on her appearance. When her true racial identity was discovered from her admittance forms, Byard was wheeled into a hallway without examination or treatment, while a place in another hospital was sought for her. She was eventually taken to Freedman’s Hospital where she died shortly after of pneumonia. While it is impossible to ascertain, it is often stated that her condition—at the very least—worsened due to the time spent in the drafty hallway of Washington Sanitarium.
McElheney introduced the topic of Regional Conferences to the GC Committee’s Spring Council held April 8-19, 1944, in Chicago. Following some debate (Of the 22 speakers on record, 17 spoke in favour, 3 against, and 2 asked questions of clarity. See Delbert W. Baker “Regional Conferences: 50 Years of Progress” Adventist Review November 2, 1995, p11.) a resolution was passed:
“WHEREAS, The present development of the work among the colored people in North America has resulted, under the signal blessing of God, in the establishment of some 233 churches with some 17,000 members: and WHEREAS, It appears that a different plan of organization for our colored membership would bring further great advance in soul-winning endeavours; therefore WE RECOMMEND, That in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized.” (Quoted in Baker, “Regional Conferences” p14.)
From 1945 to 1947, seven Black Conferences were formed: Allegheny, Lake Region, and Northeastern (1945), South Atlantic and South Central (1946), and Central States and Southwest Region (1947). In 1967 Allegheny divided into the Allegheny East and Allegheny West, while the South Atlantic divided into the South Atlantic and Southeastern Conferences in 1981. Regional Conferences were not formed in the two westernmost districts: Pacific and North Pacific Union Conferences. Work amongst the Black population in these areas was coordinated by a Regional Affairs Office. (Baker, “Regional Conferences”, p14.)
It should be noted that there has been some recent agitation amongst Black SDAs in these western Union Conferences regarding the formation of a Black Conference. (See articles in Adventist Today.)
Delbert W. Baker “Delbert W. Baker Regional Conferences: 50 Years of Progress” Adventist Review November 2, 1995, p11-15.
Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation” in Perspectives: Black Seventh-Day Adventists Face the Twenty-first Century Calvin B. Rock ed. Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 1996, 136)
Jacob Justiss Angels in Ebony chapter entitled “Regional Conferences”. Available as part of the Telling the Story Anthology (Part 2, p37-48)