Magazine Article

In the Midst of Racism

A story that is yet to be completed

Ella Simmons
In the Midst of Racism
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The following is taken from a presentation at the 2021 Adventist Global Camp Meeting by Ella Simmons, then general vice president of the General Conference, and Jennifer Woods, then general counsel for the General Conference. In recognition of Black History Month, we have excerpted portions of Simmons’ remarks. Some of the oral style has been retained. You can listen to the entire presentation here: —Editors.

We should begin by acknowledging that while there have been many significant advances, racism in the United States and throughout the world has not disappeared, but taken on new dimensions, nomenclatures, and codes. I have lived through many eras.

I lived through Jim Crow and periods of denial—the false belief that racism was eradicated during the 1950s. I lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s; through what some might term a period of advancement in the 1980s and 1990s; and into the twenty-first century, when we all have had to acknowledge that race still matters in the world and injustices still target groups of people for harm.

I most remember the demeaning and destructive laws and practices of the Jim Crow era that lasted into my teens. Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. These laws spanned a period of about 100 years from 1865, following the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which supposedly abolished slavery.

Jim Crow laws were created to set structures and keep Black people in their place. They were designed to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, receive an education, and otherwise take advantage of the opportunities this nation provided. Anyone who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws was subjected to arrest, monetary fines, jail sentences, violence, and even death.

It is essential that we acknowledge that racism is not a societal anomaly of individual ideology or perversion, but rather a combination of systemic structures, policies, and laws that perpetuate inequalities and oppressive outcomes based on ethnicity, skin color, and other race-related or assigned factors with individuals acting within these constructs.

First Memories

Prior to my entering third grade, my parents informed me I would be attending a new school. I remembered that my White friends from our neighborhood attended that school while I attended an all-Black school, a little farther walking distance. When they told me where I would be going to school, I was not against it. It was closer to home, and I had friends there. This decision followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had trickled down to implementation in Louisville, Kentucky, my hometown.

I felt it was a new adventure. My parents knew better, but did not want to alarm me that there were those in our city and neighborhood who did not favor me and my Black friends going to the Whites-only school. I walked to school with my hair in pigtails and pretty ribbons, carrying my satchel and my lunch box. There were no angry mobs, but my parents did not trust the calm. I was surprised to learn later they had escorted me. Actually, they followed me to school each day for some time. All along the way, they hid from me so I would think I was on my own. They wanted me to develop a sense of security, of independence and courage in the face of fear to face new challenges. It was a good year because my teacher, a Southern White Christian woman, showed me love, made me feel valued, and protected me from some of the uglier sides of desegregation.

In sixth grade I was to represent my class and school at the state and national levels in a photographic compilation of student scientific achievement. I was happy beyond words. From the time I received a little chemistry set for Christmas, I thought I could be a research scientist. Now the world would see me this way too. The day came when the team from the State Department of Education came to take the photographs. All went well. I was pleased with my accomplishment, and my teacher was as well. But later I was called to the teacher’s desk, and he explained there had been a problem with the photograph, and it had to be retaken. He went on to explain as best he could, obviously struggling, that while I was in the first photo, my lab partner, my best friend, would now be photographed to represent our class. She was White.

This racism was more subtle than a rowdy mob, but it was more devastating coming from my teacher and the leaders of our educational system. As an 11-year-old, I knew the real reason—a Black girl could not be the face of the school district or state. It was then and there, whether true or not, that I learned that a Black girl from Louisville, Kentucky, could not grow up to become a research scientist. A little scientist died that day.

Studies have shown that racism is often defined as individual prejudice. But, in fact, racism is imprinted in cultural artifacts, theological discourse, institutional realities, historically derived ideas, and cultural patterns, which all contribute toward present-day racial inequalities. The Adventist Church has not been unaffected.

An Unfortunate History

The General Conference established a cafeteria for employees and guests in 1918. Fast-forward to August 13, 1941. General Conference officers met regarding a letter to Miss Arthelia Watlington. The minutes reveal that Miss Watlington was a college stenographer called to work at the General Conference office for G. E. Peters (then director of the Black work). The letter explained that she might have to bring her lunch since the cafeteria did not serve Colored people.

In March 1949 the General Conference Committee and the Review and Herald met together about the cafeteria. They studied the policy with respect to patronage in the cafeteria. It was suggested that Colored members coming to the President’s Council, the Review and Herald Centennial, and the Spring Meeting might present a problem. The minutes record their agreement by consensus that the cafeteria should serve all workers of Seventh-day Adventist institutions, workers from the field, and students from the seminary, regardless of color or race.

But it didn’t end there. A headline from a Baltimore African American newspaper, April 1, 1951, is so telling. The headline reads: “Religion Fails to Check Jim Crow, Adventists Find.” It went on to say, “Prominent Seventh-day Adventists here found out on Monday that Jim Crow thinking knows no religious bounds. After dinner in the Adventist vegetarian cafeteria in Takoma Park, which previously had served Whites only, they [a Black group] were told, in effect, not to come again. The cafeteria assistant manager said that their patronage might discourage White patrons.” The cafeteria in question was in the Review and Herald building.

What Would Jesus Do?

Jesus defied the social order of His day. He broke down prejudicial walls that prescribed acceptable spheres of relationships, and He directly addressed the sins of racism in its many forms. In fact, this drove Him to Samaria, where He kept a divine appointment with a Samaritan woman. In that meeting Jesus overcame national, racial, ethnic, tribal, gender, social class, religious, and historical prejudices.

We, as members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, must do all in our power to distinguish ourselves and the church from the legacy of what I would call biblicized bigotry—the ingrained history of racism and separation that has been perpetrated on the world by Christianity and other world religions to placate racists in their efforts to maintain the illusion of racial or ethnic supremacy, social control, and economic advantage over other people of the world. We are people of the Word. We should strive with all our hearts and resources to distinguish ourselves from that form of Christianity.

We must acknowledge as a diverse global church that we are committed to being agents of peace and reconciliation in society by modeling and advocating for the biblical truth about our shared ancestry. We should acknowledge that we are ambassadors in this divided world with words of reconciliation, saying we will support and nurture those marginalized and mistreated because of their color, caste, tribe, or ethnicity. Further, we should accept and embrace our Christian commitment to live through the power of the Holy Spirit as a church that is caring and loving, grounded on biblical principles.

Some were born in the church, but I came into the church through Bible study. I remember how I felt as I discovered the truth of the Bible. I fell in love with Jesus. I think somehow we have been drawn away. We have forgotten our first love. We need to regain that first love, that heat, that passion for Jesus and for what He calls us to be and to do. If we really love Jesus, we cannot hate each other. If we really believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we cannot think either one of us is lesser than the other. We must recognize Satanic deception and sin for what they are. We need to be converted all over again, to start fresh and to do all in our power to be like Jesus.

Ella Simmons

Ella Simmons previously served as a general vice president of the General Conference. She retired in 2022, but still remains an active volunteer for the church.