First Black Students at Divinity School Became Church and Community Leaders

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Friday, January 25, 2013

When the Duke University Board of Trustees voted March 8, 1961 to desegregate the university's graduate and professional schools, it was a move that had long been supported by many Divinity School students and faculty (see Divinity School a Leader in Push for Integration).

Integration not only gave students who had been denied entry into Duke the opportunity to attend, but it also opened the school to new modes of thought and a new canon of knowledge. These students proved to be not only academic pioneers at Duke Divinity School, but also leaders in the church, community, and nation.

The first black students to attend the Divinity School were Ruben Lee Speaks, Matthew A. Zimmerman, and James Donald Ballard.

Ruben Lee Speaks

Ruben Lee Speaks (d. 2001) was the first African-American student to attend Duke Divinity School. As he already had his B.D. degree (now known as the M.Div. degree), he entered the school in September 1961 as a special student.

Born Jan. 8, 1920, in Lake Providence, La., to Benjamon and Jessie Bell Nichols Speaks, Speaks received a bachelor’s degree from Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa; a B.D. degree from Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, N.J.; and a master of sacred theology degree from Temple University, Philadelphia.

He was elected the 76th bishop of the AME Zion Church in 1972. He also served as a professor of systematic theology at Hood Theological Seminary.

Speaks was a chairman of the World Council of Churches and the boards of trustees of Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary, and a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

ZimmermanMatthew A. Zimmerman Jr., M.Div. ‘65

Zimmerman entered Duke Divinity School in the fall of 1962 as one of the first two African-American students officially enrolled in the M.Div. program.

Born in Rock Hill, S.C., on Dec. 9, 1941, Zimmerman graduated from Benedict College with a B.S. in biology and chemistry, intending to become a physician. A Duke recruiting poster lured him away from medicine.

After receiving his M.Div. from Duke in 1965, he was ordained in the National Baptist Convention. He served as a campus minister at Idaho State University and at Morris College in South Carolina. He also earned a second master’s degree in guidance counseling at Long Island University.

In April 1967 he began his military service. Commissioned as a captain and serving as a clergyman, he attended the United States Army Command and General Staff College and the United States Army War College. He was sworn in the office of United States Army Chief of Chaplains, assuming the rank of major general in 1990.

His awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, three Meritorious Service Medals, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Vietnam Honor Medal, 1st Class. In 1990 he was the recipient of the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Meritorious Service Award.

BallardJames Donald Ballard, M.Div. ‘66

A native of High Point, N.C., Ballard earned his B.A. from Shaw University, where he was also salutatorian of his graduating class. He enrolled in Duke Divinity School’s M.Div. program in September 1962, one of the first two African-Americans to do so. He graduated in 1966 as one of the top ten students in his class, and later earned a post-graduate degree from Winston-Salem State University and a doctor of divinity from Shaw University.

Ballard was a teacher in N.C. from 1967 to 1972. From 1977 to 1978, he was the chaplain for Winston-Salem State University. He later spent four years in the United States Air Force as an assistant chaplain.

Ballard served as the pastor of the United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist church in Winston-Salem, N.C., for 45 years, where he was active in improving race relations. Since then, he has served as an interim pastor for 5 different churches. Dr. Ballard is widely respected as a preacher of the gospel, as a biblical teacher, and community leader. He was honored in 2006 by the mayor and city council in Winston-Salem for leadership in civil rights and equality for the city.