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Once, when the World War II-era song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” was playing on the car radio, Jack Tyson explained his nuanced objection to his sons: “I can understand about praising the Lord, and I can understand even passing the ammunition, but I don’t understand how we can put ’em together. You can’t praise the Lord and pass the ammunition at the same time.”

With World War II over, and the Korean War looming, Tyson decided to register as a conscientious objector. When he called to let his father know, the elder Tyson advised him to rethink his decision. “I said, ‘Daddy, I hadn’t called to discuss it. I called to announce to you what I’m going to do,’ and we hung up. I went to my room and cried because I had never before broken with my father over a single issue that I knew about. Here I was a 20-year-old, and I had taken a stand that was not his stand, that was even stronger than his stand.”

Courtesy of Tim Tyson

 Vernon Tyson, five of whose brothers were also Methodist pastors*, in 1972 while serving in Wilmington, N.C.

* Vernon and three brothers - Dewey D’54, Tommy T’51, D’53 and George T’50, D’55 - all graduated from Duke Divinity School. Their brothers Bobby and Earl also became Methodist pastors. Tommy’s granddaughter Molly Anne Tyson D’04, whose father, Tommy Jr. attended Duke Divinity School, will become the most recent Tyson graduate of the divinity school in December 2004

The mother of one of Vernon’s high school buddies was the military draft registrar in his hometown, “and to this day she’s not spoken to me,” Tyson says. “It was icy cold because her son was in the Navy.”

‘Brainwashed’ at Seminary

After graduation from Duke Divinity School in 1957, civil rights, rather than pacifism, became the dominant theme of Tyson’s ministry. “… I didn’t know how to escape the issue of race and be a Christian minister on the front line,” he says. “So it was my issue; inescapable. Race was put on my plate.”

In 1958, Tyson was appointed as associate pastor of Raleigh’s Edenton Street Methodist Church, serving under the late Rev. Howard P. Powell. Baptist firebrand the Rev. W.W. Finlator was calling on downtown Raleigh merchants to integrate their restaurants and Tyson wanted to add his name to the newspaper ad. When Powell advised him not to because it would “mark” him, Tyson replied that “it’s calling on the merchants to do something I believe they ought to do, and I want to sign it.’”

He asked why Powell wasn’t signing the ad and found integrity in the response. “Because I have never served an interracial meal in my fellowship hall here at this church,” said Powell. “How can I go ask a secular merchant to do something that my church hasn’t done?”

“I said, ‘Dr. Powell, you’ve been here 12 years. I just got here. That’s your problem, it’s not my problem. If I’m an embarrassment to you I’ll not sign it, but that’s the only reason I will not sign it.’”

Powell told Tyson “don’t stand back on that account.” Although many parishioners congratulated him after the ad appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer , a prominent church woman sent for him.

“I saw your name in the paper, and it greatly disturbed me,” she said. “I know your professors have brainwashed you. You’re a good boy, and you come from good stock. I know your family, and you’re a God-loving man. I’m so concerned about you.”

In response, Tyson said, “‘Thank you for loving me enough to want to speak to me. Will you pray for me?’ I got on my knees beside her chair, and I took her hand and laid it up on my head and she prayed for me and I hugged her and kissed her on the cheek and I left.”

Vernon Tyson likes to speak of events that have marked him—those quintessential moments that are life-changing and, at best, life-affirming. In Blood Done Sign My Name, (Crown Publishers, NY 2004), a memoir written by his son Timothy B. Tyson, it is clear that Vernon made a mark on many during the struggle for racial reconciliation.

“Daddy had observed the escalating violence of the black freedom movement of the 1960s with growing uneasiness,” writes Timothy Tyson G’94, who teaches Afro-American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Yet, he knew that remaining silent about race would betray his calling. ... In our family, at least, if you didn’t take a stand at all, you weren’t much of a man or much of a preacher; the ‘race question’ was the acid test of integrity.”

In 1964, Vernon Tyson invited Samuel Proctor, the renowned African-American educator and president of North Carolina A&T College, to preach Feb. 2—“Race Relations Sunday—at Jonesboro Methodist Church in Sanford, N.C.

When news of the invitation spread, Tyson received telephoned death threats. One caller threatened to blow up the house where he and his wife and three children lived. Parishioners insisted he withdraw the invitation. The church’s administrative board called an emergency meeting on the eve of Proctor’s visit.

During that tension-filled meeting, Miss Amy Womble, an elementary school teacher who had taught most of the men and women there, gave her pastor a vote of confidence. She shared a newspaper account of a black airman from Pope Air Force Base who stopped at the scene of a Chapel Hill, N.C., wreck and resuscitated a white teenaged boy.

“I want all of you fathers to tell me something,” Womble is quoted as saying. “Now, which one of you fathers would have said to that airman, ‘Now, don’t you run your black fingers down my white boy’s throat?’ Which of y’all would have told that airman, ‘Don’t you dare put your black lips on my boy’s mouth.’”

The church board voted, 25-14, to stand with Tyson, and Proctor’s visit came off without a hitch.

The Rev. Joe Mann, director of the rural church division of The Duke Endowment, was a youth representative on the Jonesboro Church board. “When Miss Amy made her really remarkable speech, it carried the day,” says Mann. His parents later invited Procter for a meal in their home, a courageous act for the times.

“All of that was, in many ways, in response to Vernon Tyson as a man of God we trusted and believed, because he seemed to exemplify what Christ would have us do,” Mann says. People said “yes to some things that we probably hadn’t said yes to before, but knew we should have, about racial justice and inclusiveness.”

The title of Blood Done Sign My Name, which is being released in paperback, comes from the chorus of a slave spiritual that became part of the blues and gospel canon: “Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad, that the blood done sign your name?”

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Fall 2004 Volume 4 Number 1 Duke Divinity School