Once-segregated Christian university targets racism with launch of new research center
ABILENE, Texas — In 1960, a professor named Carl Spain delivered…
LOS ANGELES — In 1963, an 11-year-old named Dewayne Winrow gave a sermon during Southwestern Christian College’s annual Bible lectures in Terrell, Texas.
The boy’s message resonated with one notable person in the audience: Marshall Keeble, the famous black evangelist who baptized an estimated 30,000 people before his 1968 death.
“Brother Keeble came to the stage, and he offered me immediately a full-time scholarship to begin attending the Nashville Christian Institute,” Winrow, now 65, recalled in an interview at the Reseda Church of Christ, the San Fernando Valley congregation he has served since 1975.
’50 Years: Racial Reconciliation and the Church’ is a series focusing on significant events of the 1960s and the lingering impact. Read all the stories.
Winrow, the son of a single mother, had been baptized at age 9 at the Bell and Farrall Church of Christ in his hometown of Shawnee, Okla.
The sixth-grader moved to Tennessee and became one of Keeble’s “boy preachers” — students who traveled with Keeble to gospel meetings and delivered short messages before he spoke.
“Brother Keeble’s thing was preaching, and his thing was saving souls and baptizing people,” said Daniel Harrison, another of the former boy preachers.
“Right now, many of us are still carrying on his legacy,” added Harrison, senior minister for the Chatham-Avalon Church of Christ in Chicago for 50 years and director of the national Crusade for Christ since its launch 39 years ago.
At the Nashville Christian Institute, Harrison roomed with David Jones, who retired in 2015 after 52 years as the minister for the Schrader Lane Church of Christ in Nashville.
Jack Evans, president emeritus of Southwestern Christian, the only historically black college associated with Churches of Christ, was another of Harrison’s classmates.
“We’re still preachers, and we still run together,” Harrison said of his old friends from the Nashville Christian Institute. “We have a relationship that’s very deep.”
Harrison describes Keeble — born to former slaves 13 years after the end of the Civil War — as “the greatest man I’ve ever met in terms of wisdom.
“He would take difficult things — things you wouldn’t even recognize or understand,” Harrison said, “and make those things plain and draw pictures or parables with it.”
Winrow remembers Keeble as a “mesmerizing” speaker who could hold his attention — even as a young boy — for hours. But Keeble wasn’t particularly keen on pointing to a specific Bible chapter and verse. If someone asked for a Scriptural citation, Winrow said, Keeble was apt to say something like, “Just read all of John, and you’ll run into it.”
Many of the most influential African-American leaders in Churches of Christ over the past half-century got their start as boy preachers for Keeble, said James O. Maxwell, vice president of institutional advancement at Southwestern Christian.
Just three of those mentored by Keeble:
• Franklin D. Florence, senior minister for the Central Church of Christ in Rochester, N.Y. He is a longtime civil rights activist whose congregation recently organized a protest against President Donald Trump’s alleged demeaning language concerning immigrants and certain countries.
Maxwell, a professor and administrator at Southwestern for 47 years, said that in the decades he and Evans worked together, the former president spoke often of Keeble.
“Almost every time that brother Dr. Evans and I would get together, he would say something that brother Keeble had said,” Maxwell said. “He remembers a lot of the jokes that brother Keeble used to tell and a lot of his mannerisms and all.
“I know he was very, very impacted by him,” Maxwell added. “Many others had the same feeling about him.”
Keeble, whose ministry career spanned 71 years, became president of the Nashville Christian Institute in 1942. Although his own formal education stopped at the seventh grade, Keeble worked hard to raise money for the fully accredited elementary and secondary school. For a quarter-century, the institute trained African-American boys and girls for service in Churches of Christ.
“As president of Nashville Christian Institute, he held that school together at a time when his pupils were sleeping on dirt floors,” a Christian Chronicle editorial said after Keeble died at age 89 on April 20, 1968.
Thousands of Christians best remembered Keeble accompanied by two or three boy preachers while holding gospel meetings across the nation and generating funds to operate the school, the late J.E. Choate wrote in “Roll Jordan Roll: A Biography of Marshall Keeble.”
Choate cited a 1946 news article in Tennessee’s Chattanooga Times, which covered a four-week gospel meeting by Keeble that drew between 1,500 and 2,000 people each night.
Two 11-year-old preachers and an “old-timer” of 14 “are laying down the gospel law to overflow crowds at the church of Christ tent meeting here and making them like it,” the newspaper said.
Keeble asked William Robinson — one of the 11-year-olds — if he could recite the entire Book of Acts.
The boy said he could.
But Leroy Blackman — the other 11-year-old — was not as quick to answer, eventually replying, “No, but I know all the fifth chapter of Matthew.”
“As president of Nashville Christian Institute, he held that school together at a time when his pupils were sleeping on dirt floors.”
In 1967, the year before Keeble’s death, the Nashville Christian Institute’s white-controlled board voted to close the school and transfer its assets to David Lipscomb College, which had denied admission to black students.
In the Gospel Advocate, Keeble outlined reasons for the closing: shrinking enrollment following the integration of Nashville schools, the threat of losing accreditation, the difficulty of retaining teachers on their low salaries and the overwhelming need for updated facilities.
But many blacks who had sacrificed to keep the institute going felt betrayed and filed a lawsuit. Gray represented plaintiffs identified in court papers as “Negro members of the Church of Christ and alumni, patrons and students of NCI.” The lawsuit failed, but in 2012, Lipscomb University — in an effort at racial reconciliation — awarded Gray an honorary doctorate.
In a recent interview, Gray — a Nashville Christian Institute student in the 1940s — said he and Keeble never discussed race relations.
While Gray set out to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” Keeble “worked within a segregated system the best way he could,” the attorney said. “There was no reason for Keeble (to talk) about civil rights,” Gray said, noting that Keeble’s role as president was to raise money for the school — much of it from white Christians — and recruit students.
The young men mentored by Keeble “have been pivotal leaders in African-American Churches of Christ for the past two generations,” said Edward J. Robinson, a history and Bible professor at Southwestern Christian.
“Unlike their spiritual ‘grandfather,’ all of these moved and matured in a different era and openly contested racial and social injustice,” added Robinson, author of the book “Show Us How You Do It: Marshall Keeble and the Rise of Black Churches of Christ in the United States 1914-1968.”
Crawford points to a “public” Keeble and a “private” Keeble.
“The former publicly acquiesced to white racism out of necessity, in order to raise money for African-American education, most notably Nashville Christian Institute,” Crawford told the Chronicle. “The latter resented white racism and looked forward to the day when segregation would be a thing of the past.”
Some blacks might have considered Keeble to be an Uncle Tom, Harrison said.
But as the boy preachers grew up, they came to understood Keeble better, the Chicago minister said.
“The older we became, the more we would recognize that brother Keeble did what he had to do at that particular time in history to keep the school alive,” Harrison said.
Winrow, the California minister, is a highly educated theologian with multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a doctorate in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California.
Still, some of the former Pepperdine University professor’s most important training came, he believes, from a preacher who never finished junior high.
“Brother Keeble was a unique personality,” Winrow said. “He was genuine in terms of his faith and his ministry. He was unselfish and sacrificial in terms of what he gave his life to. I certainly would have to attribute … my commitment and even my theology and how I navigate theological currents of this day … to being influenced by men such as Keeble.”
Keeble was not a progressive in terms of culture, said Winrow, a former executive board member for the San Fernando Valley chapter of the NAACP.
“It all had to do with his theology,” Winrow said. “Keeble was a person who believed strongly in what we would call the sovereignty of God. This is the way that he could function as a pacifist within a racist culture because he believed that in spite of societal ailments, God was ultimately in control. That’s how he operated.”
At the same time, Keeble was fearless, the California minister added: “He wasn’t afraid of white people. He wasn’t afraid of saying things that would be upsetting, anything like that. But then he knew how to say things, because he kept people laughing.”
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