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Faculty Reflections

A Brief History of Reconcilation at Duke Divinity School

Duke Divinity School is located in Durham, N.C., a city formed after the Civil War where both black and white citizens worked with some mutual consent about how development would occur. This does not mean it was some fictitious nirvana of equality, but space was open for some black people to flourish in business and cultural life. These mutual benefits created the social and economic currents that surrounded the Divinity School in the first half of the 20th century.

The faculty and students of the Divinity School were strong advocates of speeding up the integration of the student body. The first two African-American students were admitted in 1962: J.D. Ballard and Matthew Zimmerman. Some faculty also participated vigorously in demonstrations against segregation, notably Frederick Herzog and Harmon Smith.

One of the most decisive moves toward reconciliation was the establishment of the Office of Black Church Affairs, now called Black Church Studies. Under the leadership of Dean Thomas Langford, the Rev. Joseph Bethea was appointed director and Herbert Edwards was named to the faculty in theology and black church studies. Since that time, there has been continuous progress in the recruitment of African-American students in the Divinity School student body. The recruitment and retention of faculty has been more challenging; currently we have six black faculty members, four of whom have tenure.

A major interest of Black Church Studies has also been the move toward reconciliation. Collaboration between the director and faculty have resulted in bringing in scholars, sponsoring seminars and institutes, establishing lecture series, and teaching a robust array of courses. The underlying premise behind all of these endeavors was that reconciliation must be rooted in honesty. The “canon” of theological texts must be expanded; the story must be told truthfully; relationships must be interpreted to show the interpenetration of knowledges. This cuts against the history of scholarship as the nearly exclusive production of European and Euro-American males.

Reconciliation requires this increase of mutuality. In the past race relations have been dictated largely by those who held power. When change occurred, it was usually the result of a contest between the powerful and an alternative form of power. Among African-Americans there was the wide embrace of a prophetic Christianity that held in tension the quest for justice and liberation with a strong penchant for not violating or doing harm to the sister or brother. This resulted from faith, as well as from the experience of having been violated.

Honesty and mutuality are important for substantive reconciliation for at least two reasons. First, it is essential for setting the record straight and giving a true account. Second, there have been sincere debates concerning who God is, how to interpret Scripture, and what it means to live together in Christian community. The African-American church has produced a theological response to these issues that has often not been recognized. It has existed in sermons, pamphlets, songs, addresses, and books—as well as in the mode and manner of worship.

Honesty and mutuality that lead to reconciliation requires education. The Divinity School requires at least one course in Black Church Studies for every M.Div. student. It also requires interaction so that people can be in the same physical space—for dialogue, yes, but also to worship. It is a necessity to have communal space where they can live together as human beings who encounter one another in a way that compels ownership of their social construct and its impact on others. This moment of encounter can open into a human embrace that goes beyond projection, animosity, fear, or the will to overpower. Such redeemed space opens the possibility for the sincere quest of what it means to live together under God. These are propaedeutics—the knowledge necessary for learning—of reconciliation.

These ingredients of reconciliation have long been present at Duke Divinity School, and have been largely student led. The challenge going into the future has to do with the extent to which the faculty as a whole takes ownership of this valuable work and inserts it into its intellectual program as essential to the formation of leaders for the church.