Howard Thurman, Black Spirituality, and Critical Race Theory in Higher Education

By Giles, Mark S. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Howard Thurman, Black Spirituality, and Critical Race Theory in Higher Education


Giles, Mark S., The Journal of Negro Education


This study examines aspects of Dr. Howard W. Thurman's (1900-1981) career in higher education through the lenses of Black spirituality and critical race theory. The experiences of Howard Thurman offers distinct perspectives through which to interrogate the Black experience in American higher education, and the intersections of race, religion and spirituality, Black leadership, and American racial politics related to education. Specifically, this study highlights the collectivist ethos of Black leaders, Black colleges, and racial uplift inspired spirituality shaped by and rooted in the African American experience. This study draws on historical methods and both primary and secondary sources to explore Thurman's influence on the American social and cultural landscape and in higher education.

Keywords: leadership, biography, spirituality, critical race theory

Theologian, Baptist minister, college professor, Dean of Chapel at Black and White institutions, public intellectual, philanthropist, accompUshed author, devoted husband, father, and noted Morehouse Man (Giles, 2006), Thurman earned national and international recognition as one of the most influential religious leaders in twentieth-century America (Bennett, 1978). Dr. Howard W. Thurman (1900-1981), defies simple categorization within the literature on educational leadership or spirituality because his Ufe and work crossed several traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Thurman served as a faculty member and Dean of Chapel at several colleges and universities from the 1920s through the mid-1960s. He worked as Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spehnan Colleges (1929-1932), and Professor of Religion and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University (1932-1944). In 1935, Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, traveled to India, Burma, and Ceylon as members of a "Negro delegation" on a goodwill-friendship tour sponsored by the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association- Young women's Christian Association (YMCA-YWCA), during which time they enjoyed a substantial meeting with Mohandas Gandhi (Giles, 2003; Kapur, 1992). After working at several Black colleges (Morehouse College, Spehnan College, and Howard University) for over 20 years, Thurman and his wife, founded and led an interracial, interfaith church, The Fellowship of AU Peoples Church (Fellowship Church) in San Francisco in the mid- 1940s (Thurman, 1959). Their interfaith, nondenominational venture was a direct culmination of years of deep reflection, travels, and spiritual questioning about how to bring people together to best explore the human condition across racial and faith lines. Lerone Bennett (1978) described this spiritual philosophy as, ". . . the experiences of a direct and intimate relationship with a God who is not located somewhere in distant eternity but in the inner recesses of the person" (p. 68). Strands of Thurman's philosophy were evident in the thinking and speeches of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Farmer (Jordan, 2001).

In 1953, Thurman became the first African American to hold a senior level position at a White university when Boston University President Harold Case hired him as Dean of Marsh Chapel and Professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources in the School of Theology (Thurman, 1979). Thurman retired from Boston University in 1965 and started the Howard Thurman Educational Trust to provide scholarships to any under-served students.

His published writings routinely gained new authences as a part of standard theological curriculum in many seminaries and schools of theology. His mentorship and teaching shaped the thinking and spiritual insights of a generation of Civil Rights Movement leaders (Fluker & Tumber, 1999). Along with the significant accomplishments of his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman (1904-1996) which included her work in the late 1920s as a national traveling secretary of the colored student division with the YWCA, founding editor of die National Council of Negro Women's Aframerican Women 's Journal, and author of Pioneers of Negro Origin in California, Howard Thurman's service and leadership in botìi Black and White colleges remains a lasting legacy of inclusive Christian praxis grounded in tiie multilayered complex Black experience in America (Giles, 2003). …

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