A couple of weeks ago, Morris Brown hosted a Charleston Branch NAACP Town Hall Meeting on quality public education for all of our young people and for equity in all schools of the Charleston County School District. We did so because education has always been a priority for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Although Richard Allen and the first generation of our Zionâ€™s leaders were barely literate, the AME General Conference of 1844 outlined a course of study for those aspiring to ministry. Daniel Alexander Payne fled Charleston when our state outlawed education for African-Americans and closed his school. Payne went north and established Wilberforce University, Americaâ€™s oldest church owned institution of higher education, on his way to becoming a Bishop of the church.
The Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church saw the need for the education of newly freed slaves and established Payne Institute in Cokesbury, South Carolina in 1870. The school was later moved to Columbia, South Carolina and became what is now Allen University. Those who established Reid Chapel AME Church in what was a Columbia suburb in 1954 first established the V.V. Reid Day Care Center. Today, V.V. Reid has expanded into a Kindergarten and Elementary school with a waiting list, a center of excellence that flourishes not on government funds, but on tuition paid by a wide range of parents from professionals to laborers.
That passion for educational excellence in the AME Church once spilled over into our public schools. I had no choice but to behave and achieve at Columbiaâ€™s Florence C. Benson Elementary and Booker T. Washington High Schools because many faculty and staff were AMEâ€™s who knew my mother and would relay my transgressions or lack of effort directly to her! Those who helped to shape my faith at Saint James AME Church were visible not only in church on Sunday, but in the schools I attended every day.
Educational excellence has always been a priority for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and we need to embrace that priority in practical and prophetic ways today. The practical ways are rooted in the fact that the historically African-American church is the only remaining enduring institution in the black community and in the need for us to see to our young peopleâ€™s educational well being in the present age.
Morris Brown does so in a practical way through efforts like the Tutorial and Mentoring Program and Summer Enrichment Program – which enable our children to better compete in the classroom – and the Career and Guidance Ministry, which does everything from helping our young people to find summer jobs and make career choices to helping them to compete for college scholarships. We live in a time when many of our children arenâ€™t exposed to public speaking in school and seldom – if ever – see their guidance counselors unless they have problems. The church has to address that current need and see that our children have the preparation, support, discipline, inspiration and encouragement that they need to achieve.
The church must also, however, be prophetic in the tradition of those who fought for freedom from slaveryâ€™s chains and for the end of Jim Crow segregation. We ought to urge our children to stay in school, but we also ought to question why our children are sometimes suspended in disproportionate numbers. We ought to tutor and mentor our children, but we also ought to ask why some of their very young and white teachers set low expectations for them. We ought to promote parental involvement, but we also ought to ask why some predominately black schools are treated not as incubators for excellence, but as laboratories to test dubious new initiatives.
The demands and realities of our era and of public schools that are still sometimes separate and unequal require the people of God to be not reactive, but as proactive as the parents who get what they want for their schools and children because they attend school board meetings, lobby board members and make it known that theyâ€™ll settle for nothing less than the best for their children. When we do the same things, then our children will be the beneficiaries. Itâ€™s one thing to say that our schools need a helping hand, but another to realize that the helping hands that they need are at the end of our own arms.