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Is Boston University a Crossroads for Black Intellectuals/W.E.B. DuBois’s “Talented Tenth*?” Part 2

Our first feature story highlighted the achievement of Dr. Gail N. Kemp, who received a doctorate from Boston University. She continues the tradition. What tradition? In the last feature story, we began exploring Boston University and its legacy for Black intellectuals. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps the most recent and best-known modern example. However, Dr. King was not alone. He followed in the footsteps of Dr. Howard Washington Thurman (November 18, 1899-April 10, 1981)—a Black preacher, theologian, philosopher, poet, civil rights’ leader, etc. (See:

Dr. Thurman became the first African American dean of chapel of a traditionally white university. He served as Dean of Marsh Chapel, at Boston

University, from 1953 to 1965. The university opened a center in 1986 to honor him and his legacy, the Howard Thurman Center (HTC)— What astounding achievements for an American Black born and raised in the segregated South, i.e., Daytona, Florida! His grandmother, who reared him, had been a slave. Dr. Thurman followed the “educational ‘underground railroad’.” From segregated schools in Florida, Dr. Thurman attended Morehouse College (1919-1923), a HBCU* (, returning as a professor (1929). He earned a divinity degree from Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School), in 1926. Thurman also studied mysticism at Haverford College with the influential Quaker theologian, Rufus Jones.  (Mysticism is a key aspect of the Quaker faith.) Dr. Thurman was an early pacifist and significantly influenced Dr. King. In fact, Dr. Thurman led a group of African Americans (called the “Negro Delegation of Friendship” on a trip to India []).

They met with Mohandas Gandhi, in 1933-34. Gandhi is celebrated for bringing down the British Empire through his pacifism []. An empire upon which the “sun never set”** was brought to its knees without a gun being fired!) During this meeting, Mahatma Gandhi challenged Dr. Thurman. (Note: “Mahatma” is a title meaning, “great-souled one.”) The challenge? Are there elements of Christianity that could break the bonds of segregation for the American Negro—as he had found in Hinduism? This conversation crystalized a lifetime of Dr. Thurman’s further exploration of a nonviolent “theology of liberation.” For the remainder of his life, this was a major theme of Dr. Thurman’s life, work, and writings.  (His most famous book is Jesus and the Disinherited[1949]. It still resonates as the foundation of the civil rights’ movement— Does some of this sound familiar?

It is. In 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also visited India to meet with “Gandhians”/followers of Gandhi ( As alluded to earlier, Dr. Thurman mentored Dr. King and other African American civil rights’ leaders ( Therefore, it is not a surprise that Dr. King chose Gandhi’s nonviolent movement as a model for the civil rights’ movement in America. Tragically, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi have another similarity. Both were assassinated, in April 1948 and April1968 at the ages of 39 and 49, respectively. Yet, their voices/their influence are still heard and felt. 

Dr. Thurman’s tenure at Boston University as Dean of Marsh Chapel, his theology (known as “Common Ground),” and his significant contributions have been almost lost. Perhaps, it is because his focus was on the transformation needed upon each individual heart. Dr. Thurman believed true, lasting change worked from the inside out, from the individual to the community. For “doers,” this was not the preferred approach. However, Dr. Thurman broke new ground wherever he went. In 1944, Dr. Thurman co-founded the first integrated, interfaith congregation in the U.S., in San Francisco, California. The name? The “Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.” It still continues ( With growing divisions among people, now may be the time to revisit this “prophet of promise” (

*HBCU—Historically Black College/University

**Britain controlled so many countries throughout the world that the sun was always shining somewhere in its empire—!

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