Alumni of Nashville Christian Institute live out Marshall Keeble’s dream
Blogging live from Franklin, Tenn.
In 1935, after addressing a chapel audience at Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University), African-American evangelist Marshall Keeble wrote:
The boys and girls are wonderfully trained for future service in the church. I hope some day to see a school for our colored boys and girls because it is badly needed. Our young preachers are doing fine when we consider that they have no place to be trained by such godly men as (E.H.) Ijams, (N.B) Hardeman, Cox and Armstrong. I pray that these men may live long.
Seventy-seven years later, former students have gathered to fellowship and reminisce about their years at the Nashville Christian Institute. From 1940 to 1968, “the house on 24th Avenue” in Nashville was the realization of Keeble’s dream — a place where black youths could receive a Christian education as they were equipped for ministry.
The NCI reunion happens every two years, rotating among the cities of the South, arriving back in the Nashville area about every six years, said Fred Gray. The civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King Jr., best known for representing Rosa Parks, is an NCI alum. In 1967 he filed a lawsuit that challenged the transfer of NCI’s assets to David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University), exposing a deep divide between black and white members of Churches of Christ.
Recently, Christian Chronicle managing editor Bobby Ross Jr. reported on the university’s efforts to heal old wounds as it awarded Gray an honorary doctorate.
I spoke with Gray and a few of the school’s alumni at a mixer in the lobby of the Embassy Suites in Franklin. Some came from as far away as Washington, D.C., and California.
Despite the school’s humble beginnings and financial challenges, it produced graduates who became physicians, lawyers, teachers and politicians.
Margaret Beamon, who was helping with registration, said that her mother, Louise Johnson, was the driving force behind her time at NCI. Johnson insisted that all eight of her children attend. Beamon worked for 40 years in the Milwaukee public school system. One of her brothers, Albert Johnson, was the mayor of Las Cruces, N.M. — the first black mayor in the state of New Mexico. Beamon is a member of the 40th Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville.
I also met Wendell Wilkie Gunn. After his time at NCI, he became the first black student to enroll at Florence State College in Alabama (now the University of North Alabama). His admission to the college was the result of another lawsuit filed by Gray in 1963.
After graduating with a degree in chemistry and mathematics, he went on to serve as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for international trade from 1982-84. He concentrated on trade negotiations in Southeast Asia. Now he’s a semi-retired consultant and a member of the Stamford Church of Christ in Connecticut.
Gunn said he played only the tiniest of roles in America’s struggle for civil rights.
Speaking to his fellow NCI alum, Gray, he said, “You guys looked into the mouth of the beast every day, for years.”
The reunion continues through Sept. 2.