By Florence Borders
Creator: Tilley, John Lee (1898-1971)
Extent: 2.0 Linear Feet
Date Acquired: 01/01/1973. More info below under Accruals.
The collection contains 93 items of correspondence, primarily incoming, and handwritten sermons, speeches, and notes, in addition to diaries, notebooks, minutes, reports, newspaper clippings, photographs, collected items, and memorabilia. The letters reflect family ties, civic, and educational pursuits, and community involvement. Of particular interest in this group of items are letters concerning the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SCLC) unsuccessful suit to desegregate airport facilities in Montgomery, Alabama which was initiated by Dr. Tilley, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, et al. It was heard by the Civil Aeronautics Board; and includes correspondence and copies of briefs.
While not a large group of materials, the greeting cards also hold several items of interest. Chief in this category is a Christmas greeting sent by Coretta Scott King. Despite the fact that the card is not dated, it can be determined by the four King children pictured with their mother that a relationship with the King family was maintained after the assassination of Dr. King. Not only in the correspondence is the SCLC tie indicated; it is further apparent in notes, clippings, financial records, and photographs found in the collection. A handwritten copy of a projected press release concerning the resignation of Dr. Tilley as executive secretary of SCLC is among the papers.
Clippings and photographs form an integral part of the collection including those which the known interests of the subject would suggest. Among these is one taken from a Chicago paper which was published near Thanksgiving Day, and which lists under "Saints" one John Tilley as a passenger on the Mayflower. An asterisk is placed near the name, either by Dr. Tilley, or by someone calling it to his attention.
The photographs are of individuals and groups, some of family. Again, the interests and activities of the subject are represented by persons and groups included in the collection of photographic data. There are photographs of activities relating to the voter registration drives in Atlanta and in Baltimore; there are photographs relating to Shaw University, and there is one of the Howard University School of Religion Faculty, circa 1967, showing Dr. Tilley in the group. Furthermore, there are photographs of Dr. Tilley shaking the hand of President Richard Nixon, and there are two negatives showing crowd scenes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through Dr. Tilley was a native of North Carolina and a member of a pioneering family in Stem, he received his high school education at Thyme Institute, Chase City, Virginia. Included in the autobiographical data in the collection is a two page item called "A Brief History of Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church," which contains information about the Tilley family in Stem from 1872, or earlier. Because the government purchased the land on which the church was situated in 1942, a relocation was necessary. The original church building was moved to a site near Creedmoor, N.C. Dr. Tilley journeyed to his native state to preach the dedicatory sermon. Through subsequent renovations and remodeling, the church continues to exist; and it had the distinction of celebrating its centennial in 1972. Almost one year prior to that May date, Dr. Tilley had been interred in the church cemetery.
John Lee Tilley, born in 1898 to Harvey and Emma (Glenn) Tilley, was a Baptist minister, educator, administrator, author and civil rights leader; director of Christian Education for the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland; president of the Baltimore Fellowship, Inc.; active alumnus of Shaw University; graduate of the University of Chicago; pastor of New Metropolitan Baptist Church; director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Register to Vote Campaign in Maryland and eleven southern states; executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and great nephew of Hugh Tilley, a member of the state's legislature during Reconstruction.
Throughout his career, Dr. Tilley was to manifest a continuing interest in his Alma Mater, Shaw University, which he served in several capacities, among which were Director of Public Relations and Alumni Affairs as the school was preparing to conduct a special campaign for the celebration of its centennial in 1965 and as its first dean for the School of Religion. The training of men for the ministry was to prove a recurrent thread in the pattern of his career.
As early as 1933, shortly after his graduation from the University of Chicago, he was directing Shaw's School of Religion, a position which he relinquished to become president of Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, a Baptist College located in St. Augustine, Florida. Leaving that post, he returned to a deanship of the Maryland Baptist Center and School of Religion. Moreover, the last academic position held by him was that of visiting lecturer at the Howard School of Religion.
Perhaps the foremost contribution reserved for Dr. Tilley was in the area of voter registration in the South. Tilley's success in spearheading such a drive for the NAACP in Baltimore led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to offer him the position of executive secretary of Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. He then launched drives in 11 southern states to increase the number of African Americans registered to vote. Several organizations expressed their appreciation for the caliber of leadership exhibited in the effort and conferred various honors highlighting the achievements of Dr. Tilley in this area.
In addition to the publication of articles in the International Journal of Religious Education, et al, Dr. Tilley wrote A Brief History of the Negro in Chicago, 1779-1933; he published The Orderly Way, with accompanying forms for implementation by churches interested in that particular system of church finance. During his student days at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, he had constructed an instrument for measuring certain racial attitudes. It was called "A Scale to Measure the Attitude of Negroes toward White People."
The Baltimore Afro-American quoted Mrs. Enolia P. McMillian in its lengthy tribute to Dr. Tilley, featuring a pictorial and editorial review of the highlights of the work for which he became so widely respected. Her words summarize the impact of this man on his peers and co-workers:
"He was an outstanding and dedicated citizen, locally and nationally in the areas of civil rights and Christian responsibility and performance… The influence he exerted in the lives of hundreds of individuals and many organizations will last eternally."
Access Restrictions: This collection is open for research.
Use Restrictions: Copyright to these papers has not been assigned to the Amistad Research Center. It is the responsibility of an author to secure permission for publication from the holder of the copyright to any material contained in this collection.
Acquisition Source: John Lee Tilley
Acquisition Method: Gift
Preferred Citation: John Lee Tilley papers, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA
Processing Information: This collection was processed in 1973.
Other Note: Correspondence Index attached as PDF.