COVENANT FORUM ON LUCY BYARD
Impact of SDA Eschatological Assumptions on Certain Issues of Social Policy
by Bert Haloviak
Race Summit Workshop Presentation
October 27, 1999
“The Next Best Plan”–Formation of Black Conferences, pages 12-14
The issue of a separate conference structure for black Adventists surfaced periodically from the late 1880s when SDAs began such work.
In general, it appears that when a policy of integration seemed at least plausible, the momentum for black conferences was dormant. But when segregation overwhelmingly prevailed (as in 1889–C M Kinney proposal; 1929–J K Humphrey and others proposal; and 1943–results from Lucy Byard incident) the momentum for black conferences became “the next best plan.”
In 1921, the momentum for black conferences was allayed when integration within SDA institutions in the North seemed possible.
Secretary of the North American Negro Department, W H Green wrote this to black “fellow-laborers” in the aftermath of the 1921 Spring Meeting:
“Coming next to the educational problems affecting our people in the north where the public schools and colleges of the world do not generally discriminate against us, this is the understanding reached: first of all, that the denomination has not taken any position shutting our people out, or discouraging them from attending our northern institutions where upon merit, and worthiness, they are qualified and are able to pay their way by money, and useful labor as any other student. This also applies to our sanitariums in the north where persons of our race desire to enter for training–not to patients.”
Green concludes: “Our General Conference brethren and our brethren generally, are fair, and just, and that when they come face to face with issues they are not only disposed to do the right thing by us, but are striving toward that end.”
General Conference President W H Spicer reflected on that 1921 Spring Meeting and the issue of black conferences:
“You know that was the plan that really seemed imminent [that is, the black conference plan] when we gathered in that spring council, but contrary to our expectations, the negro brethren themselves swung this plan of having the work under one management, with negro members on the committees.”
In urging the president of the Southern Union to move with the “spirit of democracy [that] is in the air,”
“Can you work out a plan that will answer to the spirit of representative responsibility and self-development. To be merely handed something by the white conference and treated nicely will not, I suppose, satisfy at all the sentiment that calls for responsibility and voice in managing their own work and a constitutional basis of representation in the denominational councils.
“Personally, I sincerely wish it might be possible to work out a plan that would head up in the union. I am prepared for that or for separate conferences heading up either in the union or the General Conference.”
Spicer concluded: “The question is, will the democratic spirit of this new time, which touches the colored race as well as the white, be met by new plans that we can form?”
Jeter Cox had been a black Adventist minister at least since the 1920s when he sang a solo at the 1926 GC session. He knew a lot about the past when he made arrangements for Lucy Byard to receive treatment at the Washington Sanitarium. He certainly knew from the past that the Washington Sanitarium had provision for receiving black patients.
A month and a half after the arrangements made by Cox, Mrs Byard died at Freedman’s Hospital in the District of Columbia. Cox had the funeral service in Brooklyn, New York.
Even before the death of Mrs Byard, it was obvious that the incident demanded a new focus on the needs of black Adventists. Mrs Byard could have stayed in New York City and received treatment at a non-SDA hospital. Her decision to seek treatment at an SDA facility was obviously tied to strong denominational loyalty.
Mrs Ruth Chambers, a close friend of Lucy, wrote J L McElhany after Lucy’s death:
“This must be a white man’s religion. I don’t think God wants that. I love this message and will always keep the faith as long as God helps me to. What you do there will never make me give it up and lose my soul. I don’t care where I die so I am ready for it….
“I am really thinking serious of what would become of me if I had to go to some san or hospital. I could go to the Catholic one here [Hornell in western New York State] and they treat all and every one alike….
“Get the love of Christ in your hearts and you will not be looking at a man’s skin to wound him. You have got to get rid of that or you will never get to the kingdom. You cannot take it into heaven.
“We have a sister here like that and when the Sabbath School is at her house she don’t want the black members there or to bring any one with them. She thinks what the neighbors will think of her. I would like to tell her what God thinks of her. But she will know some day. That is not a Christian at all….
“Just imagine being sick unto death and then going to what you think is a Christian place to get a bed to lie in and being turned away, just because God made you black. My! My! What a thing to have happen to one. Such a dear person as our Sister Byard was. All for the cause and doing all she could for the church, then having this put on her. Thank God she don’t have to have it any more. I myself will never have it. I would not go to one of those places if I had to lie down and die in the barn. Christ was born in a stable. I could die in one.
“Why have the name of Adventist blackened with such doings. If there is no place for us in the buildings, why not make a place where we can go and have a place to die in and not be in the way of the lilly whites….
“Pray for me that this will not turn me bitter. It was a hard blow to Sr Byard’s husband and all her friends. I am trying not to think it was done in a spirit of hatred. But it was done and it has made very hard feelings in all the Negro churches that I have heard talk about it….
“Please tell me if you will where there is any place one of us can go and get in. I am alone and I might have to have a place to go some day. I’d like to know if there is one such place
provided for the black man or woman….” (Mrs Ruth Chambers to J L McElhany, Jan 21, 1944)
It seems clear that the momentum from General Conference headquarters for movement toward black conferences sprang from a realization that SDA institutions were unwilling for integration to occur.
The report that recommended black conferences to the 1944 Spring Meeting also suggested an “Advanced School in the North and a “Sanitarium in the North” for black Adventists. Black conferences were born, at least in the thinking of church leadership, with the apparent intention of maintaining segregation.
GC President J L McElhany, emerging from his sick bed during the 1944 pre spring council meeting, even interjected Adventist eschatology into the subject. Remember the timing seemed pertinent. It was one month before the Normandy invasion in World War II:
“For 34 years I have had direct and continuous administrative contacts with our colored churches and believers, and there has developed in my heart a deep interest in their welfare. I have never sensed more keenly, than I have at any time, the great need of our laying wise and adequate plans for the development of the work. I greatly rejoice over what has been accomplished in the growth and development of this work.
“There is one thing I want to say to you, tonight, and that is we ought to frankly face it and admit that a Seventh-day Adventist regardless of race and color, face an antagonistic world. We are a very small laity. We can’t do what larger and more influential denominations do [i.e. move toward integration?]. We are hated and despised by the world at large. I sometimes think we deceive ourselves in thinking that we are popular in the world. Just let some little incident happen and every SDA will be a marked man, hunted and persecuted. We are a small laity; our only help and hope is in God. The thing for us to do is to get this work finished just as soon as we can and go to our eternal home where these racial conditions do not exist.
“I am thankful in my soul for the council of the Spirit of Prophecy when followed, saves us from a lot of trouble. I pray that God will guide us in this meeting. May God speed the day when this message will be through and the Lord shall come. It -16- will be a glorious thing when we can go to our eternal home. We will forget all the things that have troubled us in this world.” (J L McElhany at Pre Spring Council meeting, April 8, 1944)
Correspondence reveals that at the very same meeting where McElhany made that speech, the incident at the Washington Sanitarium was also discussed. Here’s a portion from a letter of the GC treasurer, W E Nelson to R A Hare, administrator of the Washington Sanitarium:
“These colored folks talk about different hospitals in the District of Columbia and also in Maryland where there are wards in the hospital that receive colored patients; but our institution is not a hospital, primarily it is a sanitarium and as such is entirely different as far as its social standing is concerned….
“It would be absolutely disastrous at the present time for the Washington Sanitarium to carry a mixed clientele….
“As I view the whole situation, Dr Hare, it is not a matter of the colored people wanting a little sanitarium of their own where they can receive attention, but what they want is racial and social equality.” (Nelson to Hare, April 9, 1944)
Black minister William L Cheatham polled the black constituency of the Columbia Union and found “that every one who would rather not have a colored conference want equality in the present setup. That is in offices, sanitariums, publishing houses and the like.
“Of course it is said that the latter will not work therefore it seems to me that the next best plan would be the colored conference.”(William L Cheatham to J l McElhany, Nov 26, 1944)