The Legacy Begins: Howard & Sue Bailey Thurman at Boston University

The Thurman Legacy at Boston University

Search Virtual Listening Room

The fact that the papers of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. jointly reside at Boston University, along with the archives of Sue Bailey Thurman, is more than a casual coincidence. For, Boston University would be one of several spaces - physical, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and historical - that King and his family would share with the Thurmans. Indeed, their ties and commonalities were so close that Thurman (1899-1981), who graduated from Morehouse College a few years ahead of King's father, could be considered King's spiritual godfather. It is known that Thurman frequented the King household as Dr. King was growing up.

King, of course, would famously rise to the challenges of his initial historic moment in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the most memorable entrances into national and international prominence that America would witness in the 20th century.  It is fair to say that the nation and the world were prepared to embrace the eloquence and urgency with which this young black pastor spoke of non-violent action in the cause of social justice in the spirit of Thoreau and Gandhi, in large measure because this was the gospel that Howard Thurman had been preaching and practicing with significant impact for more than 20 years.

It was precisely this work that inspired President Harold C. Case to recruit Thurman to Boston University in 1953.  Out of respect for Thurman's unique combination of talents, experience and stature, Case lured Thurman to BU by offering him a position based on a combination of roles unprecedented in the annals of education.  The post of Professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources in the School of Theology and Dean of Marsh Chapel that Case offered Thurman was a tribute to the intellectual gifts Thurman had consistently demonstrated in academic settings from his graduation as valedictorian of his class at Morehouse in 1923 and his graduate studies at the former Rochester Theological Seminary (Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), where he again led his class before receiving his ordination as a Baptist minister in 1925.

Thurman's accomplishments in the classroom had prompted Dr. Rufus Jones, the eminent Quaker mystic to accede to Thurman's request to study privately with Jones at Haverford College.  During the spring of 1929, Thurman had an intense tutorial in the history and philosophy of mysticism and in the Quaker precepts of pacifism.

By any measure, Thurman's schooling had been exceptional - as distinguished as it was eccentric - and it launched him on an unpredictable trajectory.  He married and started a family, and returned to Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 where he joined the faculty of his alma mater and its sister school, Spelman College.   However, the death of his first wife, Kate Kelly Thurman, as well as the conservative Baptist provincialism of black Atlanta, left him increasingly uncomfortable.  Thurman was further troubled by Jim Crow, and the lynch mobs who, in 1930, had murdered Dennis Hubert, a sophomore theology student at Morehouse College.

In 1932, at age 32, he accepted the position of associate professor of Christian theology, before becoming full professor of systematic theology and dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University in 1936 - a post of enormous prestige in a segregated society where afro-american intellectuals where denied appointments at traditional institutions of higher education.

While serving with distinction as Howard's spiritual dean, Thurman extended his reach far from campus.  In 1935, as chairman of the Pilgrimage of Friendship, he led a delegation of the World Student Christian Federation on an 18,000-mile mission during which Mohandas K. Gandhi had extended a personal invitation.  Their meeting, the first Gandhi had with an Afro-American leader, had a profound influence on Thurman.

He returned to the United States with the then radical notion of establishing an interracial, nondenominational congregation at a time when Sunday was the most segregated and sectarian day of the week in America.  The genius of this idea would lead to the formation of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, which Thurman left his prestigious perch at Howard to help organize in 1944 as co-pastor with Dr. Alfred Fisk, a white Presbyterian minister and San Francisco State professor.

A continent away, President Case followed the development of this unique congregation with avid interest.  He wanted his university, founded by Methodist abolitionists in 1839, to resume its place as a leader on issues of race and social justice in post-World War II America, much as its founders had envisioned for it in antebellum America.  In Thurman, Case saw someone who, as dean of BU's Marsh Chapel, could turn it into a bully pulpit with an ecumenical, interracial ministry that would be felt both on the campus and beyond.

Thurman was clearly the man to fulfill the multiple roles Case envisioned not only because of his success in defying the odds to build the Fellowship Church into a thriving congregation.  Equally important, during his years in San Francisco, Thurman had written his first books, in which he had expounded his philosophy, previously available only through his sermons and contributions to various periodicals.

These early monographs, especially 1949's Jesus and the Disinherited, earned Thurman an influential readership, here and abroad, that, along with other aspects of his ministry, would lead Life Magazine to include him on its 1953 list of twelve great preachers in America.  Thus, when he arrived in Boston that year, he brought a reputation that was, quite arguably, more lustrous than that of the large (26,000 students) university dwelling in the shadow cast across the Charles by Harvard and MIT.

Boston University would certainly gain everything for which President Case could have hoped in recruiting Thurman.  His weekly sermons at Marsh Chapel gained a following that would include not only Martin Luther King, Jr., then entering his final stages of study for his doctorate, and the future Congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, then a student at BU's School of Law, but also prominent ministers, priests and rabbis from across New England.

Equally significant, perhaps, the recruitment of Thurman had produced an unexpected dividend in the form of his wife.  The product of a leading black family in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where her father was a minister and her mother an educator and social activist, Sue Bailey had been educated at Spelman Seminary before taking her bachelor's in music and liberal arts at Oberlin in 1926.  Following the example of her mother, who had been active both in black women's organizations and in the YWCA at the local and national level, she had become traveling secretary for the YWCA's college division after graduation, touring extensively in Europe and establishing the original World Fellowship Committee of the YWCA.

She married Howard Thurman in 1932 and joined him in a partnership that would last until his death in 1981.  She was with him in 1936 when they met with Gandhi and would support him in his then controversial decision to leave Howard in 1943 for San Francisco.  There she would be more than a conventional pastor's wife, most notably perhaps in leading a delegation of the Fellowship Church to the Fourth Plenary Session of UNESCO in Paris and in establishing the Juliette Derricotre Memorial Foundation.

Equally important, she would pursue her own initiatives, most notably as the founder and editor of the Aframerican Women's Journal, the first publication of the National Council of Negro Women, and as the first chair of the Council's National Library, Archives, and Museum, which led the first delegation of Negro women to make a study tour in Cuba.

A graceful writer, herself, she was the author of two books, including a history of Afro-Americans in California that was inspired by the Thurmans' move to San Francisco.

At Boston University, she continued her support for her husband's ministry by welcoming students and faculty and members of the Greater Boston community to their home.  After a Japanese student committed suicide, Mrs. Thurman, fearing that international students were prone to feeling isolated and undervalued at the university, organized the International Student Hostess Committee.  It offered lectures, chats, and receptions for foreign and domestic students hosted by faculty, staff, and faculty wives.  These events helped foster a sense of fellowship, intimacy and common purpose on a campus too frequently experienced by students and faculty of every background as vast and impersonal.

In addition to supporting her husband's work in the community, Mrs. Thurman made a lasting impression of her own.  Her curiosity about local history led her to the north slope of Beacon Hill, which had been home to a vibrant settlement of free blacks from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War. Of particular interest to her was the old African Meeting House, which was built in 1808 as home for both Boston's first black church and the nation's first segregated public school.  In 1963, Mrs. Thurman organized the Museum of Afro American History to rescue the property and the history that surrounded it.  To encourage this effort, she mapped out a black heritage trail of more than a score of significant sites stretching from the north slope to the city's south end. The Museum would purchase and renovate the African Meeting House, as well as other properties both in Boston and Nantucket, where African Americans had also had an important, historical presence.  Mrs. Thurman's heritage trail would also become the blueprint for the National Park Service's Boston African American Historical Site.

For the dozen years of their tenure at Boston University, before Dr. Thurman stepped down from the pulpit at Marsh Chapel to devote himself to his San Francisco-based foundation and to his most prolific period as an author, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman were something new: the nation's first African American academic power couple.  Their influence was not restricted to the inspirational civil rights leaders such as King and James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, who took from their eloquence and their example. It extended beyond the seas to Africa, Asia, and Europe, where Thurman's books would be even more widely read than they were here.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the Thurmans' place in the public consciousness, especially in this country, has eroded.  Where Ebony Magazine once listed Dr. Thurman among the 50 leading figures in African American history, few of its readers would recognize his name today.

There is considerable evidence, in the recent books and documentaries about Dr. Thurman that the scholarly community is becoming ever more attuned to his enduring relevance.  His papers have been among the more frequently consulted collections at the Gotlieb Center in recent years.  For this reason alone, the Thurman's trove deserves the sort of attention represented by this major grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

As the home of the archives of personal and professional papers for both Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is honored to announce the re-opening of the archival collections to researchers, and the launch of this website dedicated to their legacy.