Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Roots that run deep


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"It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water."

-Ezekiel 31:7


The roots of one current Hollywood movie run so deep in my life that I am choosing to shake the family tree and allow a few leaves of pride to fall. This is not a review of the movie but a view from my personal perspective.

You also are connected to the history that spawned this movie.

The film "The Great Debaters" recently opened in theaters nationwide. It is based on the history of an all-black debating team from Wiley College, in the East Texas town of Marshall. In 1935, students at this tiny school accomplished an astonishing feat in the days of segregation. The young debaters defeated a championship team of all-white students from the University of Southern California. The contest aired during a national radio broadcast.

Wiley College's debate team went on to compete and garner many victories over major educational institutions. I note that our United Methodist-related Oklahoma City University, as early as 1930, was one of the few schools willing to engage its debaters in a contest with the Wiley team.

Much credit for the Wiley team's success goes to a demanding professor, Melvin Tolson. In the new film, Dr. Tolson is played by actor Denzel Washington.

The roots of this story found fertile soil more than one-half century before the Wiley debate team's big moment. The seeds were planted in 1873. Wiley College was founded by the Freedman's Aid Society-with a major investment by The Methodist Church.

The Civil War had ended, but these two groups knew higher education for the newly freed slaves was unattainable in the South. The entities joined efforts to establish new schools, open to blacks, throughout the region. One such college was at Marshall.

Marshall sits in Harrison County, which reputedly held more slaves at the height of the Civil War than any county west of the Mississippi River. Marshall's First Methodist Church was used as the Capitol for the Confederate State of Missouri in exile. (As recently as the 1970s, the prevailing mood of people in the area reflected that very little had changed since the Great War. Native son Bill Moyers-an award-winning journalist-received a Peabody Award for producing a documentary film, "Marshall, Texas-Marshall, Texas," portraying the tremendous distance that continued to exist between blacks and whites.)

As soon as Wiley College opened its doors, emancipated slaves and their sons and daughters found their way to Marshall. The school was a star of hope for hundreds of men and women.

The students literally built their dormitories with bricks they made from the thick, red, East Texas mud. They grew their own gardens and raised livestock to sustain themselves while they studied.

In 1897 a young man from nearby Big Sandy, Texas, walked onto campus to get an education. His name was Edward Hayes. He stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and possessed a bass voice that could rattle ceiling beams.

Hayes wanted to become a preacher. He thought, as did many others, that the only respectable jobs for that first generation of freed slaves were preaching and teaching. He knew Wiley was excelling at producing some of the finest in both fields. From the 1880s through the 1960s, Wiley College was seen as THE institution for higher learning by many blacks, and it produced a great number of preachers and teachers in that time.

In 1901, Hayes graduated from Wiley College, a major accomplishment for any black person one generation removed from slavery. No seminaries were open to blacks at that time, so Wiley trained its ministerial candidates in Latin and a number of other disciplines to prepare them for the demands of a growing literate constituency.

Edward Hayes was my grandfather, and his diploma sits in my father's home.

For several years following his graduation, Edward Hayes pastored small Methodist churches in and around Marshall. He and his wife, Marie, had 11 children. One son, Robert, was born in Marshall. Robert is my father. The family moved to Houston in the late 1920s, as Edward Hayes began to preach and pastor in churches throughout southeast Texas.

At the height of the Depression, 1933, my dying grandfather summoned Robert to his bedside. He wanted his son to become a preacher, and Robert agreed.

By 1937, Robert Hayes was enrolled at Wiley College. He took classes taught by Dr. Tolson.

Robert graduated from Wiley in 1941. Seminary doors had opened to blacks by then, and he did post-graduate work at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Ga., and further study at Boston University.

He returned from Boston to a segregated Central Jurisdiction of The Methodist Church and served in many posts, from pastor to district superintendent, to that of first black assistant to a bishop following the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren.

Wiley College and the Hayes family reconnected unexpectedly in 1971. Bishop Kenneth Copeland asked my father to return to Wiley to "give it a decent funeral." The school was millions of dollars in debt, and accreditation was about to be withdrawn.

Robert Hayes (Sr.) accepted the assignment-but, instead of closing the school, he restored it to a prominent place in black higher education. He convinced bankers to delay calling in loans, and he called upon The United Methodist Church to keep the historic institution alive. From 1971 until 1986, my father worked tirelessly to keep the college open.

Today's attention generated by "The Great Debaters" highlights only one of the lesser-known stories of people who overcame enormous obstacles.

In 1972, I graduated from Southern Methodist University at Dallas. My first appointment was to serve a small congregation located in Longview, Texas-20 miles from Marshall. Learning of my nearby assignment, my father asked me to also serve as chaplain at Wiley and teach a freshman philosophy class. I agreed.

For the past 111 years, Wiley College has been a part of my DNA. It educated my grandfather, my father, my sister, and, in a very real sense, myself as I learned the stories of what the Methodist faith has meant in the life of this school and my family.

Every year, I go back to Marshall's First United Methodist Church-the same place that once housed the Confederate State of Missouri-to preach from a pulpit once off-limits to people because of their skin color. Each time I return, the fellowship is electric, and the people of Marshall open their arms to me in ways words cannot convey. People turn out to celebrate our journey together and proclaim that Marshall is not the place it once was.

This journey is not so much about Wiley and my family as it is about the Church in which I am privileged to serve as bishop. Methodists have always been strong advocates of justice, equality, and education for all people. Our odyssey continues since those first seeds were planted and is entwined today in strong roots that run so deep.

Perhaps you will have an opportunity to see this film and bask in the shade of a beautiful family tree.


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