THOUGH GONE FOR 45 YEARS, the Nashville Christian Institute lives on through the preachers, lawyers and civil rights activists it produced
NASHVILLE, Tenn. —
There’s nothing special at the corner of 24th Avenue North and Batavia Street.
A dog barks behind a chain-link fence in this lonely neighborhood, thus far overlooked by the urban renewal happening a few miles away. A red brick building, used as a youth center for a church, sits next to an unkempt field of grass.
The building once housed the Nashville Christian Institute, which for nearly 30 years trained black youths for ministry.
A few blocks away, about 50 surviving alumni of the institute gather in the Marshall Keeble Fellowship Hall of the Jackson Street Church of Christ. Cases lining the far wall display framed, handwritten letters by Keeble, the institute’s longtime president, and pictures of young men wearing suits, reading Bibles and singing.
The alumni — a host of retired educators, lawyers and preachers — clap, laugh and shout “Amen!” as Richard Rose Sr. prowls the floor of the fellowship hall. This isn’t a fiery sermon about God’s power — though he’s delivered a few as minister for the Gray Road Church of Christ in Cincinnati.
This is a story from his teen years, about an “ingenious plan” to break the institute’s curfew so he and his roommate could hear soulful crooner Sam Cooke perform. To sneak back in, they left a ground-floor window unlocked.
Of course, after an evening of “Twistin’ the Night Away,” they returned to find every window locked tight. After about an hour of pondering, the roommates realized they had no recourse but to knock on the institute’s door and take their comeuppance.
One of the houseparents, Arthur Fulson, opened the door and said, “I was wondering how long I was going to sit out here waiting for you to knock.”
The alumni meet every two years in cities across the country, said Alvin Hinkle, president of the national alumni association.
About once every six years, the group returns to the home city of their alma mater, called NCI.
At each meeting, the institute’s alumni list grows shorter.
“Those of us, by the grace of God, who are still here are carrying on the banner for all who spent time at the house on 24th Avenue,” Hinkle said.
The school, which struggled financially throughout its life, produced a civil rights attorney, a trade adviser to President Ronald Reagan and countless doctors, educators and preachers.
“We’ve lost some, but we still come,” says Velma Dowell, a member of the Wyoming Avenue Church of Christ in Detroit and a 1949 graduate of the institute.
Though the school closed its doors in 1967, “through the preachers, lawyers, doctors and educators, it lives on,” she said.
MARSHALL KEEBLE’S DREAM
Margaret Beamon remembers the excitement she felt as she rode along Jackson Street in the late 1940s, on her way to enroll as a first grader at NCI.
Looking out the window, she saw a stately school building. But the car didn’t stop there.
“That was Washington Junior High School, up the street,” she said. Arriving at NCI, “you were a little disappointed when you saw it. But once you got there, there was no turning back.”
The institute’s home was the abandoned Ashcraft City School building. It opened as a night school for black preachers in 1940, under the direction of A.C. Holt. Two years later it became a fully accredited elementary and secondary school. Keeble, the son of former slaves and a sought-after preacher among Churches of Christ, was named president.
W.E. Brightwell, a church member who supported the institute, described it as “an orphan on our doorsteps, without the benefit of a basket, to say nothing of ribbons, buttons and bows.”
The institute was “crudely pieced together out of second-hand salvaged materials,” Brightwell wrote eight years after the school’s opening. The first students dug a basement under the building to serve as their living quarters.
Despite its humble appearance, the school had dedicated students and teachers, said Patricia Boatwright Ball, who graduated from NCI in 1948.
“They gave me the academic foundation I needed to do well through college and graduate school and a doctoral program,” said Ball, who served on the faculty of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., for 40 years.
More importantly, NCI instilled “Bible principles, guiding principles,” said Ball, a member of the Liberty City Church of Christ in Savannah, where her husband, Wesley, is an elder.
THE GOLDEN AGE
In the 1950s, the Jackson Street community near NCI became the epicenter of black Nashville, said Reavis Mitchell Jr., dean of the School of Humanities at nearby Fisk University.
“There was a store where you could buy custom-made hats,” he said, speaking to the alumni at a banquet in a Franklin, Tenn., hotel. The community also had “a theater where you didn’t have to go in the back door.”
By 1955, NCI had graduated 235 students, 97 of whom became preachers. More than 2,500 adults attended the institute’s annual lectureship, which drew speakers from across the South.
Keeble traveled the country with “boy preachers,” showing his fellow Christians the brightest of NCI and collecting donations. Students were required to memorize entire chapters of the Bible, including Matthew 5 and Acts 2.
The teaching stuck, said Allen Jackson, a 1965 NCI graduate who now ministers for the San Pablo Avenue Church of Christ in Oakland, Calif.
Leaning across the banquet table, he launched into the second chapter of Acts: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing wind …”
Parents sacrificed to send their children to the school, said Beamon, one of eight siblings to attend NCI. She studied hard and went to summer school, graduating at age 15 and working in the Milwaukee school system for 40 years.
Her brother, Albert N. Johnson, graduated in 1954 and, 22 years later, was elected mayor of Las Cruces, N.M., the first black mayor in the state.
As she and her classmates studied their textbooks and Bibles, Beamon began to question the “separate but equal” policies of their city. Why did she have to “sit upstairs” when she visited another Church of Christ school in town, David Lipscomb College?
Her father worked long hours at the railroad — and drank at a separate water fountain from his white coworkers — to pay for her education.
“You wonder, why it is that we’re not equal, but we still pay equal taxes?” she asked.
THE TURBULENT SIXTIES
Keeble stepped down from the presidency of NCI in 1958 but continued to raise money for the school. Two white church leaders — Lucien Palmer and Willie Cato — took the institute’s reins.
By the 1960s, there was a “pecking order” among the students on campus, said Lee Collins and Edgar Shelton, who graduated in the middle of the decade. Everybody had a nickname, including “Duck” and “Termite.” The oldest students lived on the third floor.
“That’s where the big boys were,” Collins said. “The longer you stayed there, the closer you got to the third floor.”
Troubles foreign and domestic cast a shroud over their years at NCI. After graduation, many students joined the military, serving in the Vietnam War.
As the decade waned, “Jackson Street lost some of its luster,” Mitchell said. Construction of Interstates 40 and 65 divided the community. Businesses closed.
NCI’s enrollment dwindled. Its teachers earned less than half of what their counterparts in the increasingly desegregated city schools earned.
In 1967, NCI’s white-controlled board of directors voted to close the school and transfer its assets to David Lipscomb College, now Lipscomb University. Many blacks who had sacrificed for the school felt betrayed and filed a lawsuit to stop the transfer.
Civil rights attorney Fred Gray, an NCI grad and former “boy preacher” of Keeble’s, represented the plaintiffs, who ultimately lost the case.
“We couldn’t understand, in black Nashville, why NCI closed,” Mitchell said. “It was a place that seemed so successful.”
A year later, on April 4, 1968, “we didn’t understand why MLK had to die,” he added.
Thirteen days after King’s death, Keeble preached his final sermon. He died three days later, on April 20, in Nashville.
The lawsuit over NCI’s funds exposed a deep rift between black and white members of Churches of Christ. Earlier this year, Lipscomb University attempted reconciliation by awarding Gray an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
“I really accepted it on behalf of each of you who attended NCI but could not attend David Lipscomb at the time,” Gray told the school’s alumni at the banquet.
Lipscomb hosted a reception for the alums on its campus during the reunion and gave each of them green and white scarves bearing the school’s name.
The university’s president, Randy Lowry, said that the Burton-Keeble fund, which included NCI’s assets, has grown from $418,175 to $1.3 million.
In 2011, the university awarded $1.6 million in aid to 216 black students at Lipscomb, $66,000 of which came from the fund, said Lowry, adding that the university’s leaders “ask forgiveness for the injustices of the past.”
Since 1967, church members of both races have made progress in healing old wounds, Hinkle said. But he laments that “11 a.m. is still the most segregated hour on Sundays.”
As they continue to fight for equality, Mitchell urged the alumni to remember the lessons they learned at NCI.
The closing of the school “did not change you and what you contributed,” he said. “We’ve got to remember NCI, what it was about. Remember the classes. Remember that you were proud crusaders. Remember the legacy.”