A PIECE OF RACIAL CHURCH HISTORY
In 1964 my family and I moved to Clarksville, Tennessee in order for me to serve as minister of the Madison Street Church of Christ. I was 26 years old and ambitious, but hopefully ambitious to serve the Lord on a wider field of opportunity. Clarksville was the home of a state university (Austin Peay) and a sprawling Army base (Fort Campbell).
When I moved to Clarksville the Madison Street church had between 400 and 500 members (considered to be a fairly large congregation as churches of Christ go), with a Sunday morning attendance commensurate with the membership. Of course, the attendance included children too young to be Christians, adult non-members, as well as visitors from the community, including a number of students from Austin Peay. Joe Morgan was president of the University and one of the church’s elders. Several other Austin Peay faculty were members at Madison Street.
At the same time I moved to work with the Madison Street church, Arthur Fulson and his family moved to Clarksville to work with the Main Street Church of Christ, a small African-American congregation of 35 to 40 members. Arthur and his family were to be supported by the Madison Street congregation. Main Street of itself was not able to fully support a minister.
Once a month, Arthur met with the elders at Madison Street to update them on the work at Main Street. I attended the elders’ meetings and was privy to Arthur’s reports. He was a fine man with a good family and an able preacher. In the very first meeting with the Madison Street elders and me he said, “Now brother Fulford and I moved to Clarksville about the same time, and we both have names that are similar—Fulford and Fulson. You may have trouble remembering which one is which, but just note that brother Fulford is a little taller than I am!” We all had a good laugh.
In 1967, Madison Street brought the well-known black evangelist, Marshall Keeble, to Clarksville to speak in a county-wide Wednesday evening service at Madison Street in preparation for a gospel meeting with Batsell Barrett Baxter. Brother Keeble spoke to over 1000 people that evening. The main floor of the Madison Street auditorium and the balcony were completely filled. Chairs were in the aisles and foyer. Children sat on the pulpit platform around brother Keeble. Members of the Main Street church attended.
Brother and sister Fulson worked hard, but the work at Main Street was slow. I would sometimes go and preach for them. By 1968, Arthur and Clara were getting discouraged and thinking about moving to another work. The Madison Street elders began to consider their options. After many meetings with brother Fulson and the Main Street members, many meetings with the Madison Street deacons and members, and many hours of prayer, the decision was reached to integrate the Main Street church with the previously all-white Madison Street church.
Brother Fulson and his family continued to live in Clarksville until a work became available to him in—as I recall—Arkansas. During this time he filled the pulpit at Madison Street from time to time. He continued to work and visit among the African-American community of Clarksville and to invite them to Madison Street. I visited among the black members and we got to know each other more intimately.
One of those coming to Madison Street from Main Street was a wonderful older brother by the name of Green Clardy. One Sunday brother Clardy was sick and unable to attend services. The following Wednesday night, he handed his contribution for the previous Sunday to Tillman Taylor, one of our elders. Brother Taylor thanked him, but explained that he could wait until the next Sunday to make up his contribution for the previous Sunday. Brother Clardy said, “Yes, I know that, but something might happen to me between now and Sunday, and I wouldn’t want to leave here with any of the Lord’s money!” What a wonderful attitude! What a tremendous sense of financial stewardship!
To the best of my memory, nothing was reported to any of the brotherhood publications about the integration of the Main Street Church of Christ into the Madison Street Church of Christ in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1968. I do not recall that it was even reported to the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville’s daily newspaper. It was not done for publicity. It was done because it was both the right thing to do and the practical thing to do. The merger went well. It worked! And it took place almost 50 years ago!
A few years ago, I made one of several return visits to Madison Street that I have made over the years—this time to speak at the last “Family and Friends Day” the church would hold at the Madison Street location before building new facilities at Trenton Crossing. Several of the black members from my Clarksville days were still there and it was good to see and visit with them. In recent years I understand that an African-American church has been re-established at Main Street in an effort to more effectively reach the African-American community. Many congregations—both white and black—remain predominantly one or the other, but people of other races are always welcome.
I have told this story because it needs to be told before it is lost. I would not say that Madison Street was the first church of Christ to integrate, but I think it is safe to say it was one of the first in Tennessee, if not in the entire South, to integrate. The churches of Christ continue to be criticized by certain ones—both black and white—for being slow to integrate. Madison Street proves otherwise.
Throughout the years of my ministry I have preached in gospel meetings from the Great Lakes to south Florida and from Pennsylvania to Nevada. For the past forty years I have preached rather extensively in southern congregations of Christ where the churches are fully integrated, including the leadership (elders and deacons). In 1976 I preached in a meeting in Kentucky where the membership was predominantly white, but the preacher was black. I have been the regular preacher for a congregation that has had an African-American preacher to conduct our annual gospel meeting.
It is time to put the past in the past! It is time to move forward, as most of us in churches of Christ are doing. It is time to stop playing the race card at the drop of the hat! It is time to drop the tiresome mantra, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America!” It is time to remember that integration is a two-way street! It is time to get on with the mission of preaching the gospel of Christ without fear and favor to a lost and dying world composed of many nationalities and ethnicities, and to do so in the most culturally relevant setting possible!
February 21, 2017