WVSU On Demand
June 10, 2009
Smoot Describes Baptist Role In Higher Education for Blacks
Pamela A. Smoot—Assistant Professor of history in the Black American Studies Program and Director of Educational Enhancement for Minority Students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale-- delivered one of three plenary lectures at the 2009 annual meeting of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities (IABCU) in Birmingham in early June. Smoot’s contribution to the IABCU’s H.I. Hester Distinguished Lecture Series focused on the important role white Northern Baptists played in promoting higher education among ex-slaves during Reconstruction and beyond.
Smoot noted that the American Baptist Home Missionary Society (ABHMS,) other Christian denominations and individual philanthropists moved quickly after the end of the Civil War to provide teachers for those still wondering what it meant to be free. “Newly freed slaves were hungry for the fruits of education,” Smoot said, “and the contributions of religious and private donors made it possible.”
Disagreement arose over the question of what kind of higher education was most appropriate for freedmen, Smoot said. Some, including Booker T. Washington, advocated industrial education as the best way to ensure that former slaves would find stable employment. Others, including many Northern Baptists, believed that liberal arts education offered opportunities beyond field and factory. Liberal arts higher education also served the Baptist desire to create educated Black ministers.
Although the Baptists oftentimes acted under the auspices of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, they also founded their own denominational schools and helped fund schools founded by others, Smoot said. By 1881 the ABHMS had created ten colleges for Black students. In the first decades of the 20th century, the numbers of students at these institutions swelled from hundreds to thousands, and many of the schools continue to thrive: Shaw University, Morehouse College, Benedict College, Spelman College, Hartshorn Memorial College and Virginia Union University.
“African-American physicians, attorneys, dentists, social workers, government officials and dynamic Baptist preachers and teachers were a vivid reflection of the higher education afforded them by northern Baptists and the American Baptist Home Missionary Society,” Smoot said. “Northern Baptists had given new growth to African-American intellectualism among those who previously had no hope.”
Samford University Provost and Professor of Religion Brad Creed, and Auburn University Distinguished University Professor Emeritous, social activist and noted historian Wayne Flynt delivered the other two lectures in the series.