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Alumni of Nashville Christian Institute live out Marshall Keeble’s dream

A poster from 1946, showing staff and students at Nashville Christian Institute, stands next to the registration table for the NCI reunion. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Blogging live from Franklin, Tenn.
In 1935, after addressing a chapel audience at Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University), African-American evangelist Marshall Keeble wrote:

The boys and girls are wonderfully trained for future service in the church. I hope some day to see a school for our colored boys and girls because it is badly needed. Our young preachers are doing fine when we consider that they have no place to be trained by such godly men as (E.H.) Ijams, (N.B) Hardeman, Cox and Armstrong. I pray that these men may live long.

Seventy-seven years later, former students have gathered to fellowship and reminisce about their years at the Nashville Christian Institute. From 1940 to 1968, “the house on 24th Avenue” in Nashville was the realization of Keeble’s dream — a place where black youths could receive a Christian education as they were equipped for ministry.
The NCI reunion happens every two years, rotating among the cities of the South, arriving back in the Nashville area about every six years, said Fred Gray. The civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King Jr., best known for representing Rosa Parks, is an NCI alum. In 1967 he filed a lawsuit that challenged the transfer of NCI’s assets to David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University), exposing a deep divide between black and white members of Churches of Christ.
Recently, Christian Chronicle managing editor Bobby Ross Jr. reported on the university’s efforts to heal old wounds as it awarded Gray an honorary doctorate.
I spoke with Gray and a few of the school’s alumni at a mixer in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in Franklin. Some came from as far away as Washington, D.C., and California.
Despite the school’s humble beginnings and financial challenges, it produced graduates who became physicians, lawyers, teachers and politicians.

Margaret Beamon and one of her daughters, Tanya Hollerman, at the reunion. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

Margaret Beamon, who was helping with registration, said that her mother, Louise Johnson, was the driving force behind her time at NCI. Johnson insisted that all eight of her children attend. Beamon worked for 40 years in the Milwaukee public school system. One of her brothers, Albert Johnson, was the mayor of Las Cruces, N.M. — the first black mayor in the state of New Mexico. Beamon is a member of the 40th Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville.
I also met Wendell Wilkie Gunn. After his time at NCI, he became the first black student to enroll at Florence State College in Alabama (now the University of North Alabama). His admission to the college was the result of another lawsuit filed by Gray in 1963.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry and mathematics, he went on to serve as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for international trade from 1982-84. He concentrated on trade negotiations in Southeast Asia. Now he’s a semi-retired consultant and a member of the Stamford Church of Christ in Connecticut.
Gunn said he played only the tiniest of roles in America’s struggle for civil rights.
Speaking to his fellow NCI alum, Gray, he said, “You guys looked into the mouth of the beast every day, for years.”
The reunion continues through Sept. 2.

Civil rights attorney and church member Fred Gray with Wendell Wilkie Gunn at the NCI reunion. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

  • Feedback
    Wonderful story. I loved to hear Brother Keeble preach.
    Don Selvidge
    September, 1 2012

    Praise God for NCI, Marshall Keeble, Fred Gray, and so many others like them! May their legacy live long and burn brightly in the hearts and lives of present and future generations!
    Alan Henderson
    September, 1 2012

    Brother Keeble sure was a Man of God. I remember as a youngster Him coming to Weirton, WV. bringing his young boys with him and we would set up a Tent in the Black Area of Weirton. We as kids would stand while the adults and most of all visitors would sit on the chairs (on the uneven ground) with fans from the local funeral homes. but, oh how even back then the Gospel would be preached so well by bro Keeble and the boys. I sure cherish those memories.
    In 1963 while in Nashville at Lipscomb, I was given the opportunity to visit the meeting house where he preached. He had Never lost his zeal. I am sure God blessed his preaching and even today many souls will stand in judgement and not be able to say “you never mentioned him to me.
    Thinking Love,
    Darlene McKinley
    September, 4 2012

    I cherish the memories of the late fifties when Bro. Keeble would hold a meeting at Jackson Street church of Christ in Nashville, Tn. I think it was usually the first two weeks of January in the new year. Wish we could hear his common sense preaching today. He was one of a kind. And so was Willie Cato who often accompanied him for many years.
    Rosemary Swing
    September, 6 2012

    On one of two occasions I had the great privilege of hearing brother Keeble, he explained his preaching method. These are not his exact words, but the general idea: When you go to the butcher shop for a pound of hamburger, you don’t want that man to stick his hand in the hamburger and splat it on the counter! You want hamburger, but not like that! You want him to wrap it up, so you can carry it home. It’s the same with the gospel. People want the gospel, but you’ve got to wrap it up, so they can carry it home!
    Brother Keeble’s sharp intellect, ready wit, sense of humor, humility and complete confidence in the power of the gospel enabled him to bring thousands into the the Lord’s fold.
    He never apologized for the truth, but had a tremendous ability to “wrap it up” so people could admit they were wrong and accept the truth with a smile!
    You can listen to some of his lessons at the above link to the Old Paths Archive.
    Roy Davison
    Roy Davison
    September, 6 2012

    I had the blessing of knowing brother Keeble and appreciating his one of a kind preaching of the Gospel. Many years ago while serving as a deacon for the church in Pinellas Park, Florida I had the privilege of helping put together a gospel meeting in which brother Keeble did the preaching. The 500 seat auditorium was filled and running over. It was during those years that my very special friend Willie Cato was brother Keeble’s companion traveling with him all over the United States preaching and promoting Nashville Christian Institute.
    Brother Keeble was also responsible for establishing the 20th Street church of Christ in St. Petersburg,Florida.
    Gordon Hogan
    September, 6 2012

    In the 60s I was priviledged to hear Bro. Keeble and some of his “boy wonder ” preachers ” in Nashville. Also as a student at Lipscomb I worked in a Pl ay and Learn program on Saturdays at the Institute. Once you heard him you never forgot him. He was an amazeing servant and one of the greatest examples of this century of letting the Lord “use him”.
    Doris Minor
    September, 8 2012

    Great story – inspirational men! Even though I knew that Fred Gray was a member of the Lord’s church and a contributor to the civil rights movement, I didn’t realize his connection to NCI. I worshiped at the Stamford congregation for a couple of years and am sorry I didn’t get to meet Bro. Gunn.
    Monique White
    September, 14 2012

    One of the most inspiring preachers I have ever heard was brother William Whitaker, one of “Keeble’s boys” as he said. I knew brother Whitaker when he preached in Laurel, Mississippi, during the 70’s. He held tent meetings in every place he could. I was preaching in Ellisville, MS, at the time and worked with him in a tent meeting there. I think that many of our younger African American preachers know little of Brother Whitaker, but to their loss. He was a great man, a debater, and a diligent evangelist. He always used beautifully drawn charts when he preached and was very effective, heard by blacks and whites alike. His beautiful wife passed away several years ago in Florida.
    Donald R. Taylor
    September, 19 2012

    I would love to have a picture of the old NCI school. Where might I find one?
    Beverly Kindall
    October, 3 2012

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