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Reverend Gayraud Wilmore

Writer, historian, educator and theologian Gayraud Stephen Wilmore was born on December 20, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His mother was a domestic worker and his father, a World War I veteran, was an office clerk. His parents were active in the community where he grew up, and his father founded the first Black American Legion Post in Pennsylvania. He attended Central High School later renamed Benjamin Franklin where he was active in the drama club and wrote for the student newspaper. In 1937 Wilmore, just a junior in high school won a citywide contest for an essay he had written on Benjamin Franklin. He was also a member of the Young Communist League; he left the organization several years later after he discovered “he would not be allowed to think for himself.” He received his high school diploma in 1938. After high school, his studies at Lincoln University were interrupted when he was drafted into the army.

As a “Buffalo Soldier,” he served with the all black 92nd Infantry division in Italy. In 1943, he received his call to the ministry while dodging bullets in a foxhole during the war. He received his bachelor’s of arts degree in 1947 and his bachelor’s of divinity in 1950 from Lincoln University. He was also installed as the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Westchester, Pennsylvania in 1950, and would serve that congregation for three years. In 1951, Wilmore helped integrate Westchester elementary schools; his son was the first black student to attend an all white school. In 1953, he began his work with students as an associate executive with the United Presbyterian Church’s Department of Social Education and Action, a position he held for five years. From 1959 to 1963, Wilmore was an assistant professor of social ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. From there, he served as the executive director of the United Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race until 1972. In that position, he helped to organize and train ministers who participated in boycotts and protests in the South during the Civil Rights movement. From 1972-1974, he taught Social Ethics at Boston University School of Theology, and then taught Black church studies at Colgate Rochester Divinity School until 1983. Wilmore served as the dean of the divinity program at New York Theological Seminary until 1987 before becoming a teacher of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. In 1990, he became the editor of The Journal of the ITC, and he remained in that post for five years. From 1995-1998, Wilmore was an adjunct professor at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Wilmore has written and edited sixteen books including Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans, which was published in 1998, and Pragmatic Spirituality, which was published in June of 2004. He is also the recipient of innumerable awards and honors.

Wilmore was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 21, 2004.

Accession Number

A2004.088

Sex

Male

Interview Date

6/21/2004

Last Name

Wilmore

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Central High School

Temple University

Lincoln University

Speakers Bureau

No

First Name

Gayraud

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

WIL16

Favorite Season

Spring

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Abaco Island, Bahamas

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Birth Date

12/20/1921

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chicken

Short Description

Pastor and theologian Reverend Gayraud Wilmore (1921 - ) was the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Westchester, Pennsylvania, and has served as a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Interdenominational Theological Seminary, and worked as the executive director of the United Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race.

Employment

United States Army

Second Presbyterian Church

United Presbyterian Church's Department of Social Education and Action

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

United Presbyterian Commission on Religion and Race

Boston University School of Theology

Colgate Rochester Divinity School

New York Theological Seminary

Interdenominational Theological Center

Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center

United Theological Seminary

Favorite Color

Brown

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Reverend Gayraud Wilmore's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his mother's personality

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his father's work and personality

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his maternal and paternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his earliest childhood memories

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his family life growing up in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his experiences attending Elisha Kent Kane School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his childhood personality

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about winning a city-wide essay contest in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about individuals who influenced him growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his experience at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about founding a drama club and joining the Young Communists League as a teenager

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his aspirations as a high school student at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his decision to go to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his experiences at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about being enlisted in the U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about completing his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and attending seminary school

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his affiliation to the Communist Party and timeline following his stint with the U.S. Army

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his wife's reaction to his decision to enter the ministry

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his calling to the ministry while he was in combat during World War II

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his work with the Mid-Atlantic student Christian movement

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore explains how he became active in the Civil Rights Movement through the Presbyterian church, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his experiences working in the South during the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore explains how he became active in the Civil Rights Movement through the Presbyterian church, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about resigning from his work with the Presbyterian church in New York, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his experiences teaching at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his students, including what he hopes they have gained

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his seminary teaching experiences in Atlanta, Georgia

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about his writing and challenges facing African American churches

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes an experience his family shared with white neighbors while living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and his sermon topics

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about effects of the Black Power movement on education about African American history and religion

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about the importance of white ministries to acknowledge and incorporate African American church history

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore reflects upon his ministry to students

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore reflects upon ministerial goals, his chosen career and his late father's support for his writing

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his hope and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore explains the importance of African American history

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Reverend Gayraud Wilmore narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

8$1

DATitle
Reverend Gayraud Wilmore describes his earliest childhood memories
Reverend Gayraud Wilmore talks about effects of the Black Power movement on education about African American history and religion
Transcript
What is your earliest memory of growing up?$$Earliest memory, a very early memory is the coming of white immigrants from Eastern Europe into the neighborhood in which we lived. Boys and girls who came from Poland or someplace in eastern Europe, Russia who didn't speak English, who were coming into this black neighborhood because that was the cheapest rental property you could find. They came as immigrants just at the close of the great European immigration to the United States in the early '20s [1920s] which was stopped after the First World War [WWI, World War I]. I remember that we taught how to speak English and--the kids but I also remember that very shortly after they arrived, like maybe six months or a year, they learned the word nigger from white people and they soon moved out to neighborhoods that were not open to us in the next ring of residential living in North Philadelphia. So that's a early memory, I remember fighting white boys on my way to Fairmount Park [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] which was not far from where we lived but you had to fight to get through to Fairmount Park at 26th and 27th Street on Jefferson and on some of those other streets that ran out to the park. You would almost always be accosted by white gangs or white kids and you had to fight. So those are early memories. I went to a white school; I never had a black teacher when I was in either elementary school or high school. I went to a school called Kane Elementary School [ph.] and the earliest memory I have is of the smell of the carpet in the kindergarten class (laugh), at Kane elementary school [Elisha Kent Kane School]. It was a straw carpet and I remember the woman's name was Mrs. Rudolph [ph.]. Mrs. Rudolph was the kindergarten teacher, white woman of course, very kind, very nice to me and I and a few other little black children from that neighborhood went through our first grades at Kane.$When the Black Power movement started, you see. Black Power started around 1965 out of the [James] Meredith March and [Reverend Dr. Martin Luther] King's [Jr.] failure in Chicago [Illinois]. Out of that came a northern movement of black clergy which was more radical than King. Some people would have said that it was a violent movement. It wasn't violent, but it was a movement that wanted to emphasize the ethnicity--the ethnic identity of African Americans; the history of African Americans as contributive to our strong concern about justice and our demand that the academy--the white academy recognize this history and this philosophical or theological perspective that came out of the black church. When I was in Colgate Rochester [Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, New York], the students had just come through a rebellion against the faculty and administration because of the lack of teaching about African American religion and about the black church. They locked themselves up in the administration building and for several days ministers in the community fed them through buckets that were let down from windows. They really took over at campus and stopped everything until they were promised a Martin Luther King professorship and a greater emphasis upon black church history and greater involvement of the school itself and the work of justice in the African American community of Rochester. Well I came at that time and so I was a part of that new emphasis upon black studies in theology. That was already going on in the college issue, though; just beginning I guess during King's--the latter part of King's ministry. But when I went to New York [New York], it was at its height after I had gone to Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania]. I went to New York, it was at its height and while I was directing the commission on religion and race of the Presbyterian Church, I helped to organize a group called the National Committee of Black Churchmen, NCBC and that group published a long statement in the New York Times and in the Los Angeles Times on Black Power--a theological meaning of Black Power. It spelled Black Power out from the perspective of those who believed in Jesus Christ and from the perspective of the church, what were we after, who were we, why were we emphasizing blackness or the identity of black people as being important to give pride and self-esteem to our children, young people in this struggle. We also organized a group called The Society for the Study of Black Religion in 1970 and that organization is still in existence. I've been president of it, I am one of the past presidents and it is made up of men and women who are teaching in universities and theological seminaries in the field of African American religious studies in Bible and history, theology and so forth. So it's a very important part of my life, a very important movement in academia. I haven't said very much about it in this interview but we could talk more about it if you'd like.