African Americans gather to remember Central Jurisdiction
|Participants in the first reunion of the former Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church light candles in the memory of those from the jurisdiction who have died. From left are: Earl Cleveland, Patricia White and Katie Harrison.|
by Pamela Crosby and Linda Green
In 1939, the Methodist Church told blacks they were not welcome in the same church pews as whites when it voted to create the segregated Central Jurisdiction.
Composed of all the “Negro Annual Conferences” in the predecessors to the Methodist Church, the Central Jurisdiction functioned exactly as did the jurisdictions for the church’s white members. The only difference was its racial distinction.
The jurisdiction was the result of an agreement about a place for black Methodists in the merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. It was eliminated by action of the 1968 General Conference.
Retired Bishop Woodie White wrote that although the creation of the Central Jurisdiction was nearly unanimously opposed by black Methodists, those same Methodists “endeavored to make it an effective organization. It became almost a church within a church.”
It is in that spirit that African-American United Methodists, especially those who were a part of the Central Jurisdiction, gathered Aug. 27-29 in Atlanta to remember, reflect and redirect their efforts regarding the history, problems and circumstances of the forced separation.
More than 300 people gathered for the reunion, which was conceived and organized by Evelyn Gibson Lowery, whose father, the Rev. Harry Gibson, served under the Central Jurisdiction.
Lowery said the reunion was designed to provide a “living history from the voices of those who stayed during segregation and remain today within the United Methodist Church” and to collect artifacts and documents from the era for the proposed African-American United Methodist Heritage Center.
Delegates to the 2004 General Conference approved the center and established an endowment fund through the United Methodist Church Foundation.
Until a permanent facility is built at one of the denomination’s historically black colleges or universities, the center will be housed at the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History at Drew University, Madison, N.J.
The General Conference also approved a motion directing the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, with assistance from other churchwide agencies, to collect data on African Americans in the denomination and its predecessor bodies to prepare resources to inform the church and other faith communities of the contributions African Americans have made and are making in the denomination.
While Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, vehemently opposed slavery, racism was woven into the heart of American Methodism. It was an issue at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784, and ultimately the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions led to a church split in 1844.
When the Central Jurisdiction was created, there were more than 300,000 blacks in the Methodist Church. The racism that created the jurisdiction also led some African Americans to leave and join the other churches, including black Methodist denominations. Others stayed, still seeking to live as God would have them, despite a church that would not. Today, there are 423,456 African-American U.S. members of the United Methodist Church — representing about 6 percent of the total U.S. membership — including 12 bishops and 2,500 black congregations. The 2004 General Conference held a “Service of Appreciation,” honoring and celebrating those African Americans who remained Methodists in spite of the racial indignities that occurred in a segregated structure.
|The late Charles Golden was elected a bishop in the Central Jurisdiction in 1960.|
“This reunion is long overdue, and we are hoping that it will be the beginning of efforts to educate persons about the past experiences of African Americans in the church,” Lowery said.
The participants shared stories of the former Methodist Church during segregation. They drew comparisons between U.S. and Methodist race relations. Some noted that the nation moved faster than the church in dismantling racist structures.
Central Jurisdiction members recalled that although the segregation was painful, they made the best of a bad situation.
“If we had not had a Central Jurisdiction, a lot of people would not have had opportunities for real leadership, so this to me was a place where they learned and honed their skills,” said Mai Gray, a retired educator. “Even though it was not pleasant, it was still an opportunity.”
In a discussion of the future, speakers called for vision and action from all church members, examined the implications of cross-racial appointments and challenged participants to become activists by “not only remembering history, but making history remember us.”
The Rev. Yvonne Williams Boyd, a pastor from Altadena (Calif.) Church, suggested having another Central Jurisdiction reunion for young adults, college-age students and new members “so we can reinforce the story, empower them to know their history and support their work in the church.”
The Central Jurisdiction legacy continues 36 years later as the United Methodist Church seeks to revitalize black churches, provide relevant resources and hold special worship services to repent of its racism.
Chronology of the Central Jurisdiction
1784: The Methodist Episcopal Church is organized. This is recognized as the founding date of the United Methodist Church.
1787: Richard Allen and other blacks in the congregation of St. George’s Metho-dist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia withdraw in protest of segregation.
1796: The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is founded.
1816: Black Methodist Episcopal churches unite to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen becomes its first bishop.
1844: The Methodist Episcopal Church splits over slavery.
1864: Separate African-American annual conferences are formed.
1870: The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, later renamed the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, is formed.
1939: The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merge to form the Methodist Church. The segregated Central Jurisdiction is formed as a racial compromise.
1948: The Central Jurisdiction Conference forms a committee to study ways of eliminating the jurisdiction.
1952: The General Conference establishes the Board of Social and Economic Relations.
1956: The General Conference conducts a study of the jurisdictional system.
1956: The General Conference adopts legislation, which later becomes Amendment IX, allowing churches in the Central Jurisdiction to transfer to geographical jurisdictions.
1958: Amendment IX of the Methodist Church’s Constitution, adopted by the 1956 General Conference, becomes effective.
1960: General Conference sets up the Commission on Interjurisdictional Relations to continue a program to abolish the Central Jurisdiction.
1964: Conferences within the Central Jurisdiction begin merging into geographical annual conferences.
1967: Bishop L. Scott Allen becomes the 14th and last bishop elected by the Central Jurisdiction.
1968: The Central Jurisdiction is abolished with the merger of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches into The United Methodist Church.
--Pamela Crosby is a freelance writer, video producer and consultant in Nashville, Tenn. Linda Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.