Feb  2016 16
Phillips Seminary's Commitment to Diversity Has Historical Roots

An excerpt from

“Phillips Theological Seminary: Sixty Years and Counting”

By: Dr. John M. Imbler

The Seminary’s Commitment to Race/Ethnicity

Since 1896 schools, indeed almost all of society, functioned under the Plessy Doctrine. In its ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court, with one dissenting vote, had established the practice of “separate but equal,” effectively marginalizing blacks and other racial/ethnic groups.  In effect the Plessy Doctrine, initially directed towards public transportation, was extended to restrict accessibility to restrooms, restaurants, housing, and elementary schools through some higher education institutions.

In 1951 Paul Sims, son of a Disciples pastor in Lawrence, Kansas, and holder of a A.B. degree from University of Kansas, was recommended for seminary enrollment at Phillips by the Disciples Negro field secretary, R. Wesley Watson. Minutes of a special Bible College faculty meeting reflect unanimous approval, in principle, for admissions.[1] The “in principle” was not a matter of indecisiveness in admitting him but a recognition of the current political climate in the state and consequently in the university. Oklahoma state law prohibited the enrollment of blacks even at private institutions. As the seminary was under the rules of the university, Sims could not be admitted to pursue graduate ministerial studies.  His being married with two children also posed a housing problem on campus, and not an insignificant problem in Enid. In 1952, the faculty directed the dean to appoint a committee of three to draft the following resolution which was presented to the university board:[2]

Resolution of the Faculty of the College of the Bible

Whereas, our lives in both professional and personal aspects are closely linked with Phillips University, in which we are associated; and

Whereas, we hold as definite convictions Christian principles relative to our fellowmen of all races; and

Whereas, recent publicity[3] has given the impression that Phillips University has aggressively rejected a student because of his race, which action, if true, would be in rank disagreement with our Christian profession of the brotherhood of all of God’s children;

Therefore, be it resolved:

1.      That we deplore the irresponsible manner of presentation of this incident by the press, since it put the Administration and faculties of Phillips University in the false light of approving the segregation law of the State of Oklahoma.

2.      That we express ourselves, severally and corporately, as being favorable to admitting members of all races, including American negroes, on an equal basis with students now enrolled; and we affirm that a law which requires a school to refuse admittance to American negroes is essentially a denial both of basic Christianity and of the democratic process under which we desire to live.

3.      That we respectfully urge the Trustees and Administration of Phillips University to initiate action in the immediate future by which our fellow American, the Negro, may be admitted to the University with rights and privileges equal to others.

In urging this action, we fully realize the gravity and dimension of the problem, and we are aware of the dilemma that will confront the Trustees and Administration as we seek to solve it. We are thoroughly in sympathy with them and no criticism of past policies is intended. In the situation that has arisen, however, we would be false to our Christian commitment if we were to allow feeling to cause us to deny the claim of Christ and the rights of our fellowman.

4.      Be it further resolved, that a copy of these resolutions be transmitted to other faculties of the University with an invitation to them to concur in our action; and that copies be placed in the hands of the President and the Trustees with the urgent request that the resolutions soon be made public through the regular channels of University publicity.

Stephen J. England, Dean

Wilfred E. Powell, Secretary[4]

The seminary faculty ultimately threatened to walk out if the demands of the resolution were not met. Accountable to the policies of the state higher education accrediting body as well as Oklahoma law, the university was between a rock and a hard place. The case was taken to the Oklahoma Regents of Higher Education for adjudication, but the situation was eventually resolved because the law was rescinded.

Even with the support of the faculty and the encouragement of his field secretary, Paul Sims did not enroll in Phillips. The reasons for this decision can only be speculation since there is no documentation of this sort retained in the registrar’s files. Research revealed that he did matriculate at Brite College of the Bible (now Brite Divinity School, another Disciples graduate ministerial school in Fort Worth, Texas on the campus of Texas Christian University) in the summer of 1957 to pursue his B.D. degree.[5] Regardless that he did not enroll at Phillips, it was a landmark for the Graduate Seminary and a testimony to the determination of the faculty witnessing to an issue of justice through Christian convictions.

 On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court hearing the case of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, unanimously overturned the Plessy Doctrine by ruling that segregated schools are ‘inherently unequal.” The seminary faculty had openly challenged the existing law and institutional policies and was prepared to face the consequences of its actions until laws and policies they deemed violated their Christian principles were changed. By earlier encouragement of the seminary faculty then affirmed by the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the entire faculty of the university presented a policy recommendation to the board that the entire school be “opened to all duly qualified persons…regardless of their color or place of birth.”[6] The recommendation was adopted, and the university changed its policy to be in compliance with state and federal laws and the will of the faculty.

[1] Special Bible College Faculty Meeting, July 20, 1952, Special Business; Enid, OK. This was not the only item on the agenda, but it was the first one.

[2] Paul Gary, chair; Sheldon Shirts; and G. Edwin Osborn as recorded in Special Bible College Faculty Meeting, February 11, 1952.

[3] I did not have access to university records to identify this publicity.

[4] Unanimously adopted by the Bible College faculty, February 13, 1952.

[5] Conversations with the assistant registrar at Texas Christian University on June 27, 2012 revealed that Paul Sims did enroll in the B.D. program at Brite in summer of 1957 and ended his time there in the spring of 1962. The transcript shows he did not complete the degree, and she had no information on why he did not graduate or where he went from there. The Christian Church Yearbook listed Paul Sims in Lawrence, Kansas coded with an “n” for Negro Preacher. The 1953 Yearbook gave him a Dallas address with the same code. In 1957, he had the same Dallas address with a “g.” The 1964 Yearbook gave a Fort Worth address also with a “G” coding [The “g” and “G” are correct as the Yearbook apparently changed its style during the intervening years.] As previously reported, at this time in the Disciples system ordination often preceded enrollment in seminary. Ordination records, if they could be found for him, would shed no light on his graduation from seminary.

[6] Phillips University Faculty, Recommendation to the Board of Trustees, May 31, 1954. 

Browse more posts by: John Imbler, Phillips Adjunct Faculty
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