This year’s Nelle K. Morton Lecture was given by renowned historian Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas of Temple University. Her address, “Protestant Women, Ecumenism, and Interracial Organizing in the United States, 1920-1965,” captured the essence of the annual lecture and also served as a testament to Morton, who was a pioneer in organizing across racial lines to advocate for civil rights for blacks. Given on the last day of Black History Month and just prior to the start of Women’s History Month, Collier-Thomas’s lecture drew an audience of nearly 100 people.
Collier-Thomas began by emphasizing that many of the African American churchwomen who formed the interdenominational National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896 were former slaves. Denied access to leadership positions within their respective churches, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal women formed this organization as a vehicle to address sexism within the church and racial discrimination within their individual communities. By the 1920s, the organization was represented at the local and state levels and eventually joined forces with predominately white groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Federal Council of Churches Women’s Committee on Race Relations. Membership in these groups allowed black women to gain a broader platform to advance their calls for social equality and racial justice.
Inspired by their Christian faith, many of the women from the NACW helped to found and spearhead influential political, social, and religious bodies such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Christian Women United, as Collier-Thomas explained . She also discussed at length the role that the Women’s Political Council, a group of black Baptist women, played in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the event that marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
In discussing the achievements and legacy of the NACW and other black women’s organizations, Collier-Thomas pointed out that their successes were marked by struggle. Not only were these women discriminated against on the basis of their sex and race, but many were also uneducated. As a result of their activism, they faced physical brutality, placed the safety of their families in jeopardy, risked abandonment by their husbands, lost their jobs, and endured countless other obstacles.
Collier-Thomas also highlighted Drew University’s role in African American religious history, noting the example of Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph, an A.M.E. preacher and graduate of Drew, who founded the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1915 in New Jersey. Collier-Thomas pointed out that much of the material in her book on black Methodist women’s organizations came from The Methodist Archives, housed on Drew’s campus. She stressed that there is still much to be written about such organizations and the women who founded and joined them, and she encouraged students in search of fresh research topics to visit the wealth of information that surrounds them in the Archives.
The Nelle K. Morton Lecture is dedicated to Drew’s early feminist educator and theologian Nelle K. Morton. The lecture highlights women’s issues in society, theology, and religious communities.—Tejai Beulah, PhD student in Historical Studies