Rodman Allen hugs his mother after the 2021 Wilberforce University Commencement, Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Wilberforce, Ohio. Courtesy photo
(RNS) — There are usually lots of cheers and applause at university commencements.
But 2020 and 2021 graduates of Wilberforce University, a school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had an extra reason to celebrate during their ceremony on Saturday (May 29) in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Their president announced that any debts they still owed to the historically Black university had been forgiven.
“Because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances, because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” said President Elfred Anthony Pinkard. “So therefore the Wilberforce University board of trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt. Your accounts have been cleared and you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”
As soon as Pinkard said the words “forgive any debt,” the masked students started screaming, shouting and jumping, prompting him to smile and laugh before he continued his surprise announcement, which was streamed live on Wilberforce’s YouTube channel.
When he added “accounts have been cleared” there were more cheers, jumps and hand-waving among the black-robed students wearing green and gold stoles.
In a statement on the university’s website, the school said the amount of debt forgiveness for both classes totals more than $375,000 for the 166 new alumni.
It said the “zero balance” was the result of scholarships from the United Negro College Fund Inc., Jack and Jill Inc. and other institutions that aided students in the spring and fall semesters of 2020 and the spring of 2021.
It noted all student also benefited from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established through the CARES Act. In particular, that financial assistance had previously helped the students whose balances due to the school would have prevented them from registering for their fall classes in 2020.
One student spoke of the difference the debt forgiveness will make for him in the years ahead.
“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” Rodman Allen, now a 2021 alumnus, said in a statement. “It’s a blessing. I know God will be with me. I’m not worried. I can use that money and invest it into my future.”
During the ceremony the university also awarded posthumous doctorate degrees to civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers.
Wilberforce, the oldest private historically Black school operated and owned by African Americans, was founded in 1856.
(RNS) — On the first Wednesday in May, as the centennial of the Tulsa massacre approached, the Rev. Robert R.A. Turner stood outside Tulsa City Hall with his megaphone, as he does every week.
“Tulsa, you will reap what you sow and that which you have done unto the least of these my children, Jesus said, you have done also unto me,” said Turner, 38, the pastor of Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, captured on a video posted on Facebook.
“We come here to say, for your own benefit, you ought to do reparations not tomorrow, not even next week, not next month, not next year, but we demand reparations now!”
Turner’s Vernon AME is one of the plaintiffs in a suit filed in September that calls for the city of Tulsa and other defendants to pay reparations to relatives of victims and survivors of the May 31, 1921, massacre that destroyed a part of town known as “Black Wall Street.”
Beginning with false rumors spread though the Oklahoma city that a young Black man had assaulted a white female elevator operator, within about 16 hours, a white mob killed an estimated 300 Black people and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and churches.
As Tulsa pauses to mark the somber centenary in its Greenwood district, where Black Wall Street was located, Turner and other Black people of faith are among those saying the time has come to repay as well as to remember.
The lawsuit argues that the tragedy is a continuing “public nuisance” that Tulsa should remedy through monetary means.
Among the suit’s petitions to the Tulsa County District Court are payments to descendants of those who were killed, injured or displaced by the massacre; development of educational and mental health programs for individuals and organizations in Greenwood and North Tulsa; and a scholarship program for “Massacre descendants” for post-secondary education in Oklahoma.
The suit states that Vernon AME Church, “founded in 1905, is the only standing Black-owned structure from the Historic Black Wall Street era and the only edifice that remains from the Massacre. Vernon’s sanctuary burned in the Massacre. The basement was the only part of the red brick building that remained.”
The church joins other plaintiffs in charging that they never received resources to recover from the trauma and damage of the massacre.
The city, responding in court documents to the suit, questioned the framing of its claims and the idea that the city’s current problems can be attributed to 100-year-old wrongs.
“At its base level, Plaintiffs are attempting to seek reparations for the events of June 1921 while working around the inherent statute of limitations problems that have thwarted other lawsuits bringing similar claims,” the city argued.
It added that the suit’s claims of continuing racial inequalities are “nebulous” and said “community wide issues such as racial disparity are caused by a number of factors and cannot be traced to specific actions or omissions to act of or by the City, nor is it a nuisance that can be simply abated by the City.”
In 2001, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 called for reparations for the massacre, including payment to survivors and descendants, a scholarship fund, establishment of an economic development zone in the historic area, and a memorial for reburial of remains of victims found in unmarked graves.
“Perhaps this report, and subsequent humanitarian recovery events by the governments and the good people of the state will extract us from the guilt and confirm the commandment of a good and just God — leaving the deadly deeds of 1921 buried in the call for redemption, historical correctness, and repair,” wrote then-state Rep. Don Ross in the prologue of the report.
Turner, who arrived in the city in 2017 to lead his church, agrees with all of the commission’s recommendations and hopes for a full criminal investigation. His petition for reparations has been signed by more than 26,000 people.
“This is about sin and an abominable sin — racism,” said the minister, who calls the massacre a “genocide of people simply because of the color of their skin.”
Gregory Thompson, co-author of a new book, “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair,” said the Tulsans’ demands show how the movement for reparations has extended beyond atonement for the United States’ involvement in slavery to repairing societal ills, and that not just the federal government but local and regional officials are being called to account.
“It’s not to say that I don’t think the federal government should be involved — I do,” said Thompson, a white scholar who directs Voices Underground, a team of researchers and community members focused on the history of the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia area. “But I think community-based reparations allow African American leaders a lot more agency in this conversation than if it’s located at the federal government, which is not equitably representative of African Americans.”
Regional reparations initiatives have become more common of late. Since the 1990s, descendants of survivors of the 1923 massacre in the majority-Black enclave of Rosewood, Florida, have received state scholarships.
In March, the Evanston City Council, in Illinois, began approving reparations that provide mortgage and other housing assistance to local Black residents to make amends for racially discriminatory housing practices. In April, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill mandating that five of the state’s older public universities pay for scholarships or community redevelopment programs, starting in 2022, to benefit descendants of enslaved workers who built them.
Vernon AME is one of 23 churches in Greenwood that predate the massacre, of which 13 survived, according to a tally by Faith Still Standing, an ecumenical group of congregations that have rebuilt in the area or beyond it.
The Rev. Robert Givens pastors Christ Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation that was founded in Greenwood but has since moved. Its original building was still new when it was destroyed in the massacre.
“When we think of Black Wall Street, it was tremendously a thriving area of all-Black businesses,” said Givens. “So a lot of the churches were just now getting started in that area” when they were burned down.
“Nothing was ever done for them or to help them in that situation,” said Christ Temple’s trustee board chairperson, Annette Gathron, of the people who lost homes, businesses and belongings along with their churches.
Some of those whose families survived the massacre have become key figures in the city’s Black history. The late John Hope Franklin, the famed historian, was a member of Christ Temple, and his father, attorney B.C. Franklin, helped pay off the church’s mortgage on the brick building it constructed after the massacre.
Gathron said she hopes to attend some of the worship services marking the centennial.
A ” Unity Day Worship Guide ” for congregations to use on the last Sunday in May is included in an online list of options for commemorative activities.
Gathron said she also intends to keep younger members of her family aware of the history of the city where she has lived for more than 60 years.
“I think that it’s good that we are remembering and I plan to take my great-grands to some of this so they can understand the struggles that we have had,” she said.
She traditionally takes nieces and nephews visiting from across the country on a walking tour through historic Greenwood, including a stop at Vernon AME.
“I think it’s important for them to know that they can achieve because this, at one time, was a very thriving community.”
On May 31, Tucker’s 130-member church, which opened in a rebuilt sanctuary in 1928, plans to dedicate “a prayer wall for racial healing” that will include an exterior wall of the basement that survived 100 years ago.
Once built, Turner hopes it will draw people of all faiths and none for prayer and meditation. “The idea behind it is to have people of all nations come and to pray and talk to God to help us with this racial healing that we need in the world,” he said.
You can hear from Pastor Robert Turner alongside other leaders virtually tonight (June 2, 2021) at Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, TX as they commemorate the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in A Sankofa Moment. Conversation will also feature Nancy St. Jacobs, VP of Community Business Development for Truist Bank, and Lamar Tyler, Founder of Traffic Sales & Profit moderated by Dr. Frederick D. Haynes III.
FILE – In this April 13, 2021, file photo, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover smiles during a press conference in Nashville. Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday, MAY 26, 2021, that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall. (George Walker/The Tennessean via AP, FILE)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee State University announced on Wednesday that it will begin offering an online app design and coding class in two African countries this fall.
Robbie Melton, who runs TSU’s coding program, said the idea is to get African students interested in STEM careers and increase the number of Black students entering those fields. App design and coding is an easy introduction.
The courses are offered through a partnership between the historically Black university and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which operates several schools in Africa. The participating schools are the African Methodist Episcopal University and its feeder high school, Monrovia College, both in Monrovia, Liberia, and Wilberforce Community College, which serves high school and college students in Evaton, a township in South Africa.
TSU already offers the app coding program to more than 30 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States, and more than 2,000 students have participated since it started in 2019, Melton said. Around 20% have gone on to pursue STEM degrees, she said.
In addition to teaching students, TSU faculty members train participating school faculty to be able to give the courses themselves. The same will be true for the African schools, which have signed up 500 students to take the course over the next three years. That includes both college students and high school students who will take advantage of dual-enrollment.
If some of the students decide to continue their studies with TSU, the school is now able to offer degrees remotely through virtual classes, TSU President Glenda Glover said.
“Our global mission is to empower underserved populations,” Glover said. “Access to education is challenging in parts of Africa. We’re meeting that challenge and breaking those barriers.”
Originally published May 12, 2021
(RNS) — Violence between Gaza and Israel intensified this week to levels not seen for years, with Hamas shooting hundreds of rockets toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Israel retaliating with heavy strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
The buildup to the current conflagration — some are already calling it a new “intifada” or “uprising” — began several weeks ago in a Jerusalem neighborhood near the Old City, close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites for more than 1,200 years.
While Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa year-round, the mosque attracts even more worshippers during Ramadan. Wednesday (May 12) marked the end of Ramadan and the start of Eid al-Fitr, a joyous time for millions of Muslims concluding a monthlong fast.
There’s no doubt that the most extreme Jewish nationalists would like Israel to recapture the Al-Aqsa Mosque because they say it sits on top of the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple, the only remainder of which is the Western Wall.
But except for the setting of the conflict, faith is only tangentially related to the violence. Here’s a quick explainer on the conflict of the past few days, and what, if any, role religion plays.
Why did Israeli police raid the Al-Aqsa Mosque to begin with?
The Israeli government said the police responded after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them. Palestinians say the fighting really began when police entered the mosque compound on May 10 and started firing rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades. More than 330 Palestinians were wounded. Israel said 21 of its officers were, too.
But the underlying tensions may have more to do with a set of clashes in the larger east Jerusalem area, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and is home to about 350,000 Palestinians.
For weeks prior to the mosque violence, Palestinians had been protesting the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem. At night they would clash with police and far-right Jewish settlers.
Those clashes are in turn part of a long legal battle over who owns the property. Some Palestinians were relocated to Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government in the 1950s after fleeing their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
On May 10, the Israeli Supreme Court was set to decide whether to uphold the eviction of six families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers. The court has since postponed the ruling.
So this is a land dispute?
On a large scale, yes. In Sheikh Jarrah, in particular, the dispute originates in the 19th century, when Jews living abroad began returning to what is now Israel and buying properties from Palestinians who lived there. The Jordanians took over the land between 1948 and 1967. Israelis are now claiming it’s theirs again.
The dispute in Sheikh Jarrah takes on political overtones because the neighborhood is part of east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want name as the capital of a future Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis, regardless of their views about a Palestinian state, believe Jerusalem must remain “a Jewish capital for the Jewish people,” and under Israeli control.
What’s Hamas got to do with it?
The clashes between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem have united Palestinians far and wide, as have the larger disputes over their displacement and disenfranchisement by Israel. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, located about 60 miles south of Jerusalem, sees itself as a defender of Palestinians.
Hamas is at root an Islamic organization born from members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so it also cares deeply about the Al-Asqa Mosque, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.
On May 12, Israel assassinated several Hamas commanders in retaliation for the barrage of rockets on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Israel’s main international airport in the city of Lod.
What role does Judaism or Islam play in this?
At heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dispute over land. But religion is often the proxy for those disputes, pitting two different ethnicities and religions. Little wonder those tensions tend to flare around religious holidays, both Jewish and Muslim.
But Hamas’ main goal is not war with Judaism, but rather with Israel, which is occupying land it believes is inherently Palestinian.
As Hamas has become more emboldened over the years, so too, have Jewish nationalists. On Monday, May 10, which was Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Muslim Quarter, in a display that provoked and angered many Palestinians.
As often happens, the exclusive claims to parts of the holy city often turn deadly.