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Civic Responsibility and the Howard University School of Divinity


Amistad’s current blog series highlights the Historically Black Colleges and Universities found in our School Newspaper Collection. Today we feature Howard University.

In 1866, members of the American Missionary Association met to discuss the best way to help educate the large number of African Americans who had recently been freed from slavery following the U.S. Civil War. The A.M.A. – the interdenominational organization whose records make up the core collection of the Amistad Research Center – had long worked in the areas of abolition and education. It was they who provided the legal defense for the group who had been held captive aboard the Amistad schooner. With the end of institutionalized slavery in America, the group had turned their resources toward creating schools and ministering to the spiritual needs of the former slaves. The idea was born to create a theological seminary for the education of African American clergy. This idea quickly expanded to that of a full university, and Howard University was founded in 1867 in Washington D.C.

The A.M.A. contributed the entire support for Howard’s theological department. The Howard University School of Divinity was founded in 1870 and accredited in 1940, and stands as the oldest historically Black school affiliated with the Association of Theological Schools in North America. It is also the only African American theological school connected to a comprehensive category I research institution.

The School Newspaper Collection at the Amistad Research Center holds five issues of The News, the newsletter of what was then known as the Howard University School of Religion, running from 1939-1943. The issues feature biographical pieces on recent graduates, news about enrollment and student elections, and an entire issue devoted to theological discussion. There are also recaps of conferences, meetings, and convocations. In an article on the 1940 convocation, which according to the newsletter created “unusual interest,” Dr. William Lloyd Imes, Minister of the St. James Presbyterian Church in New York, delivers a moving address on democracy and civic responsibility that would have made Howard’s A.M.A. founders proud. It says in part:

Democracy to me in America means that I can only have as much of it as I am willing to share with all my fellows. My blood-right and my service-right could be argued down, possibly, if opponents chose to do so; but, when they discover that as they limit my democratic privilege they also limit theirs, they pause before they abridge my rights… American democracy is assured only so long as this interplay of mutual trust in civic responsibility is a reality… American Democracy means that the vital experience of guaranteed rights for the minority – that numerically inferior part of a democratic government that is often pushed to the wall – is an experience that we can realize in practice, not in theory alone.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. would convey a similar sentiment in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This idea of mutuality, and of trust in civic responsibility as absolutely necessary to the very existence of democracy, rings especially true in today’s political climate. Amid divisive rhetoric and violence, a reminder that we are all part of a single society, and that society hinges on everyone’s participation in it and responsibility to it, seems salient.

Along with further issues of The News, the School Newspaper Collection at Amistad also includes issues of The Howard Alumnus, The Howard University Bulletin, The Commercial Outlook from the School of Commerce and Finance, and an issue of The Stylus Magazine from 1916.

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