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The Negro Department

From the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996, Review and Herald Publishing Association)

In 1894 there were about 50 Black SDAs in the United States. When the membership reached 900 in 1909, it was felt that to make a more noticeable impact on the growing African-American population some form of organization should be effected. Hence, at the General Conference held that year the North American Negro Department was organized. J. W. Christian, A. J. Haysmer, and C. B. Stephenson, in that order, were the first departmental secretaries. In 1918 the secretary reported that there were a total of 3,500 African-American members in the United States.

When the General Conference department was set up, union and local departments or missions were organized also. In the Southern Conference, the Southern Missionary Society formed the nucleus for the organization of a Southern Union Mission. The Southeastern Union set up a union Negro Mission Department, and for a time the Southwestern Union had a Southwestern Union Mission for Blacks. Most local conferences in these unions had a African-American department or a committee.

The first Black minister to head the General Conference department was W. H. Green, formerly a lawyer in the District of Columbia who had argued cases before the United States Supreme Court. He held the position from 1918 until his sudden death in October of 1928. To fill the vacancy, the Autumn Council of 1929 appointed George E. Peters as departmental secretary. After serving briefly, Peters went to New York City to stabilize the work there because of the grave situation after the United Sabbath Day Adventist crisis. Peters was succeeded by Frank L. Peterson, a pastor in Boston, Massachusetts. Peters was again elected to the position in 1941, and in 1951 was made a field secretary of the General Conference, the first Black to serve thus.

The name of the department was changed at the Autumn Council of 1942 from Negro Department to Colored Department, as the nation grew more concerned over integrating its African-American minority into the main current of American life. The term Colored somehow appeared less harsh, less divisive. To help with the medical needs of the various schools served by the department, Geneva Bryan, R.N., was made an assistant secretary of the department in 1942 and served until 1947.

Regional Conferences Organized: In 1944 the recommendation was made to organize full-fledged conferences of the African-American churches, a plan that had been requested some years earlier by Black leaders but had not then been considered feasible. The General Conference Committee in its Spring Meeting voted: “We recommend, 1. That in unions where the colored constituency is considered by the union conference committee to be sufficiently large, and where the financial income and territory warrant, colored conferences be organized.

“2. That these colored conferences be administered by colored officers and committees.

“3. That in the organization of these conferences the present conference boundaries within each union need not be recognized.

“4. That colored conferences sustain the same relation to their respective union conferences as do the white conferences” (Actions of the Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee, Apr. 10–16, 1944, pp. 15, 16).

The first to act was the Lake Union Conference, which called a meeting of the African-American constituency in September to organize the Lake Region Conference (begun Jan. 1, 1945). Others followed, until in 1946 there were five such conferences. Two missions (Central States and Southwestern), which soon became conferences also, each with a full staff of officers and departmental secretaries, started in 1947.

In 1951 the North American Colored Department was enlarged by the addition of an associate secretary, Calvin E. Moseley, Jr., who succeeded G. E. Peters in 1953, both as secretary of the department and as a field secretary of the General Conference.

In 1954 Frank L. Peterson became secretary of the department and also associate secretary of the General Conference. Moseley was named associate secretary. The same year the name was changed from Colored Department to Regional Department as a further attempt to soften terms that seemed primarily to designate members on the basis of color.

In 1962 Frank L. Peterson was made a general vice president of the General Conference, and Harold D. Singleton, former president of the Northeastern Conference, became the Regional Department secretary, with Frank L. Bland, former president of the South Central Conference, as associate secretary.

In 1966, when Frank L. Bland succeeded the retiring Frank L. Peterson as vice president, Walter W. Fordham, president of the Central States Conference, was elected associate secretary of the Regional Department.

Recent Events: In many places in which the social pressures have lessened, previously all-White congregations have opened their membership in recent years. In the 1961 Autumn Council, the General Conference Committee voted a statement on human relations, quoting three of the extracts previously cited in this entry (7T 225; 9T 223, 209); and in the Spring Meeting of 1965 voted recommendations as follows: “We recommend, That the following principles and practices be adopted and carried out in our churches and institutions:

“1. Membership and office in all churches and on all levels must be available to anyone who qualifies, without regard to race.

“2. In our educational institutions there should be no racial bias in the employment of teachers or other personnel, nor in the admission of students.

“3. Hospitals and rest homes should make no racial distinction in admitting patients or in making their facilities available to physicians, interns, residents, nurses, and administrators who meet the professional standards of the institution.

“It is further recommended that these recommendations be given very serious consideration and that every effort be put forth to implement them as rapidly as is consistently possible” (Actions of the Spring Meeting of the General Conference Committee, Apr. 13, 14, 1965, in Review and Herald 142:8, Apr. 29, 1965).

In 1970 the General Conference Committee, at its spring session, in response to the desire among Black Seventh-day Adventists for a fuller involvement in leadership, passed what is generally referred to as the “16 points.” Among these is an action stating:

“8. On the union conference level positive steps should be taken to open doors in the area of administrative and departmental leadership for those who have demonstrated their ability and qualifications to serve all segments of the church. In unions where there are Regional conferences or where there is an organized Regional department, the administrative officer level should include black leadership.”

As a result, the seven unions with large Black memberships have elected officers and departmental secretaries from among their Black constituencies.

Another of the “16 points” provided for a Regional Presidents’ Council, which meets twice a year under North American leadership and deals with problems distinctive to the regional work.

In 1975 the General Conference staff in Washington, D.C., included 17 persons elected to their positions from the Black constituency of North America, including two vice presidents and an associate secretary. There were also two persons in appointed positions.

Departmental Secretaries: J. W. Christian, 1909–1910; A. J. Haysmer, 1910–1914; C. B Stephenson, 1914–1918; W. H. Green, 1918–1928; G. E. Peters, 1929–1930; F. L. Peterson, 1930–1941; G. E. Peters, 1941–1953; C. E. Moseley, Jr., 1953–1954; F. L. Peterson, 1954–1962; H. D. Singleton, 1962–1975.