category: President's Blog

February 2020: Gardner-Webb University Celebrates Black History Month

February 2020 President's Blog Image

Black History Month first gained national traction in 1976, and it has been recognized and celebrated throughout the country ever since.  Here at Gardner-Webb University we, too, join in this annual opportunity to recognize the successes (and the struggles) of African-Americans…both locally and across the country.

Just a few weeks back, we opened a new display on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in the Tucker Student Center’s Pouryousefi Gallery.  For that display, I was pleased to have been asked to provide some personal reflections about the speech and about Dr. King’s legacy.  I wrote, in part, the following:

woman listening to Dr. King speak

In one of the many great lines of his speech, King shares, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  This reference to Georgia always sticks with me.  I lived in Atlanta for 25 years, and Dr. King’s memory is still so vivid and so omnipresent there.  I’ve visited Dr. King’s birth home, his tomb, and the King Center on Auburn Avenue.  I’ve walked quietly through historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized and where he was later ordained as a minister.  Having studied Rev. King’s preaching style, those walls and pews seemed to come alive with his distinctive cadence.  I’ve toured—as we all should—Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights, where I tried to absorb all the lessons (many painful) of our past.

Remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should not simply be an annual ritual or a nod to past history.  As a society, we have come a long way in the 57 years since he delivered his signature speech.  But we are not perfect…not even close.  King told the crowd that August day that “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Constant vigilance and a continuous commitment to improve must remain our mission.  In this world, generation after generation will have to heed King’s advice to “always march ahead.”

At Gardner-Webb University, our motto is Pro Deo et Humanitate (“For God and Humanity”).  When you stop to think about it, “Humanity” is a pretty inclusive, encompassing word.  Thanks to God’s grace, humanity is an amazingly diverse mosaic.  It’s OK to celebrate all that God has made.  Walk across our campus and celebrate the Gardner-Webb mosaic.  Look at the friendships that once might not have existed.  Look at our commitment to community, to compassion, and to service.  I have to believe that in many ways—some large, some small—Dr. King’s dream remains quite alive and well.  For that, we are grateful.

group of smiling students

Black History Month is, of course, much bigger than one person…bigger even than the giant Dr. King was as a leader of the civil rights movement.  It is bigger than the familiar pantheon of heroes with names such as Parks, Tubman, Douglass, Chisholm, Du Bois, Marshall, and Obama.  Instead, the month gives us the opportunity to celebrate local heroes and to recognize that so many people have spent their lives—largely in anonymity—working for stronger communities, working for prosperity and justice, and working for a world in which all those in God’s Kingdom can live together and thrive.

Black History Month gives us a chance to recognize and remember some towering figures in our own institutional history.  We celebrate Joyce Watkins and Hazel Brown, who were the first African-American students to matriculate at Gardner-Webb Junior College.  We celebrate Dr. R. Logan Carson, the school’s first African-American professor, who taught religion from 1973-1994.  We celebrate Jerome Scott, who became the university’s first African-American member of the senior staff, serving as vice president and dean of student development until his passing in 1995.

We know we have much work to do here at our University.  We aim to be a model for how students from all backgrounds can come together, share a common faith journey, and succeed academically at the highest levels.  We’re not there yet, but we will be.  We aim to have a faculty and an administration that better reflect the diversity of our student body.  We’re not there yet, but we will be. 

A month is not enough to do full justice to Black History…we know that.  It is, however, a worthy window through which all of us should look with interest and respect.  In this world as in the next, we’re all in it together.  Together, we can stand on the shoulders of giants and make a better Gardner-Webb and a better tomorrow.

Pro Deo et Humanitate,

Dr. William M. Downs

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