CHAPTER 7. MORE TROUBLES FOR DR. W. H. R. POWELL
Resignation of Dr. Powell
To summarize the condition of Virginia Seminary in 1946 at the end of Dr. Powell's administration, we can say that all the buildings had received extensive repairs. These repairs, necessarily modest, nevertheless contributed greatly to the appearance of the campus, and added immeasurably to the comfort of the residents. The student body had grown in numbers from 44 to 140, a solid indicator of returning public confidence. The cost of the new Mary Jane Cachelin Science and Library Building set at $50,342.99 had been provided by the end of Dr. Powell's term.
Virginia Seminary in 1946 was on the threshold of what might have been its greatest era of growth and expansion. The elements for progress were clearly in place. The way to future greatness loomed tantalizingly close. No longer shackled with an insupportable debt, with the Great Depression a thing of the past, and prosperity evident throughout the land in the post-war boom years, and with ever-increasing public confidence, there was every reason to believe that Seminary would rise to render even greater service to the race and to the nation.
One wonders then why Dr. Powell, after having given so much to the project, resigned. The answer is simply that Dr. Powell resigned (or was forced out of office) because it had become obvious that he no longer had the confidence of a majority of the trustees and constituents. The obvious question is: how could this happen to a man who had done so much for Virginia Seminary?
Like my father, many of the black men who went into the ministry were good men. These were men who took their calling with great sincerity and with prayerful earnestness. They humbled themselves before their God; they sought His guidance in every circumstance; and they sublimated their own desires and inclinations in order to follow what they believed to be God's direction. Strengthened and sustained by unshakable Christian conviction, they were enabled to resist the lures and temptations that confronted them. They lived exemplary Christian lives before the world and before their God. My father, W. H. R. Powell, was one such man.
But then there were also men of a different stripe. There are always men trying to better themselves. This is a natural and good thing. Some men are willing to use legitimate channels of upward mobility, while others are willing, or feel compelled, to use less legitimate means to advance themselves.
Traditionally in American society few avenues of upward mobility have been offered to blacks. The ministry, however, had been an exception. Few restrictions stood in the way of those who would aspire to the ministry. Even the lack of formal training or education was not a serious impediment to those who entered the profession. As a matter of fact, some congregations preferred the untrained minister. In this connection, I once heard of a Virginia church which had a series of unfortunate experiences with the products of a local seminary. After severing their relationship with the likes of these men, one Sunday an officer of the church stood and introduced their most recent choice with these words: "Here he is folks, our ignorant minister, our ignorant man of God. He hasn't let no college mess up his religion!"
When few important avenues of upward mobility are open to blacks, the spiritual realm may attract men more interested in power than in spirituality or serving the Lord. I have often reflected that some, perhaps many of the ministers of my father's generation, were attracted to the ministry more out of a desire to find a niche in which they could exercise their talents while improving their prospects than out of religious conviction.
These men, sons of slaves, representing the first generation of free black men found, themselves in a society in which almost all doorways to progress were denied them. Yet, these were men of talent. Undeniably they had leadership qualities. They had powerful, irrepressible ambitions and drive. Proud, passionate men, they had an overwhelming desire to rise above the masses. Many were highly intelligent. Some had dazzling oratorical skills.
There is something admirable in the refusal of these men to accept the narrow restrictions imposed by the virulently racist American society of that time. They could not function in white society, but they were proud men, confident of their gifts, and they were not going to be denied. So, they built a world in which they could function among their own people. They gravitated toward the ministry as the quickest, surest, most direct means by which they could earn prestige, renown, power, and respect, while simultaneously providing an outlet for their talents. Some became pastors of large, influential churches and spent long decades as spiritual leaders of their flocks. Many achieved prominence, great status, and renown, and far-reaching influence. But were they Christians?
I have the feeling that some of these men never grasped the awful significance of the contract they entered into with the Almighty when they took upon themselves the duties and responsibilities of the ministry. What an awesome responsibility! Is it any wonder that these men seemed to wear their religion as a loose garment, easily shed when temptation arose?
Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters is a comprehensive overview of the Civil Rights struggle. Writer Branch spent about ten years in research in preparation for this book. He conducted hundreds of interviews, traveled thousands of miles and gathered hundred of reports, newspaper articles, photos, any and everything that pertained to that period in American history. Author Branch describes in one chapter a session of the National Baptist Convention during which a great fight broke out among the preachers. Hundreds of brawling preachers, representing two groups, one in power and the other seeking to seize power, tugged, pushed, fought, and pummeled each other. Indeed, one preacher was killed when he was knocked from the rostrum to the floor where he struck his head and later died from his injuries. The police had to be called in and they finally restored order to the meeting.
What a disgraceful spectacle this episode provided for the public! I'm sure the newspapers had a field day with sensational reports of the shenanigans of our spiritual leaders as the two groups fought to seize or retain power. "Power" is the operative word here -- preachers fighting for power, not for religious principle; not to advance the cause of Christianity but to retain or obtain power.
The same sort of hoodlum behavior has characterized meetings and conventions at Virginia Seminary. Intemperate declarations, violent language, character assassination, vicious, vitriolic slander and invective, venomous threats and anger, ill-concealed hatred, bickering, wrangling, hostility, and contention have far too often been the backdrop against which meetings were held. The local newspaper a few years back quoted one of the participants, a minister, who stated that he always armed himself with a pistol in preparation for these meetings.
Another story from the same newspaper tells us that one minister threatened in a meeting to punch another minister in the mouth. Even though they knew reporters were present, recording for publication the events of the meeting, some of these ministers could not restrain themselves.
But where is God in all this? Does anyone believe that He would give His blessing to such behavior? And to think -- all this is done in the name of Christianity!
Dr. M. C. Allen had long wanted the presidency of Virginia Seminary. Indeed, he wanted it so badly that one can only conclude that no matter who held the office of the presidency of Virginia Seminary, as long as it was not Allen, he and his supporters were going to oppose the college administration.
Most of the opposition faced by Dr. Powell during his two tenures and that faced by Vernon Johns was generated by Dr. Allen and his supporters. I suppose we should credit Allen with an unusually powerful determination, for he never wavered in his quest, he pursued his goal with a single-minded intensity that never diminished over the long years he was compelled to wait until the goal was finally within his grasp. Nor, I believe, was he overly concerned about the morality or the propriety of whatever maneuvers he employed in order to reach his objective. His persistence and perseverance were remarkable.
I have heard it said that once in a public gathering Dr. Allen declared "I would rather be president of Virginia Seminary than to go to Heaven when I die!" One can only wonder how a minister, even in jest, could equate any thing on earth with the promise of the glorious afterlife offered in the Scriptures.
Rev. Allen along with Dr. E. C. Smith, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and a motley crew of lesser lights, formed a cadre of men dedicated to the sole idea of frustrating, by any means necessary, the Powell formula for recovery. Their goal seems to have been to unseat Dr. Powell as president and replace him with their choice, Dr. M.C. Allen. And in the end, they succeeded, with tragic results.
The Allen forces opposed Dr. Powell's progress at every turn. A few examples of this are presented to show the extremes of exaggeration to which Allen would go. (Dr. Allen frequently made wildly exaggerated statements for effect or to emphasize a point. Dr. Ralph Reavis notes in his book A Journey of Black Independence on page 63 that "Dr. Allen tends to exaggerate.")
The October 1946 issue of "The Expected" was devoted to the condemnation and vilification of Dr. Powell by the Allen forces. This collection of gripes and expressions of dissatisfaction were for the most part about rather minor issues. But it was the tenor of the articles that was so disturbing. Even Dr. Powell's Christianity came into question. He was described as something less than a fool, his personal integrity and honesty were disparaged to the point just shy of being legally actionable. (Such is the battles of politicians in religious clothing.) The articles served admirably to help undermine the presidency of Dr. Powell, which, of course, was the purpose for which they had been collected and printed. And the articles helped achieve the opposition's ultimate goals: the resignation of Dr. Powell and the capture of the presidency for Dr. Allen.
The act of my father in signing a receipt that he had received $26,000 dollars from Virginia Seminary, even though he had not, was criticized by Dr. Allen who disparaged and represented the act to be just another sign of Powell treachery and perfidy. The Allen forces printed in their publication "The Expected" (October 1946) that "So anxious was the board to please Dr. Powell and to avoid an open clash over Dr. Powell's confused salary idea after he refused to deal with the debt clearing committee, the matter was turned over to a committee of his own choice in 1944, and just to get rid of the matter, it appears that the committee and board allowed his supposed receipt for $26,000 dollars to pass without question."
Dr. Powell's purchase of the farm for Virginia Seminary gave the Allen opposition a chance to rebuke and publicly accuse my father of embezzlement. Dr. Allen violently opposed the farm from the day it was purchased. He chose to ignore the great benefits that had accrued to the school as a result of the farming operation and chose instead to attack the method by which the farm was purchased. According to his version, my father was guilty of taking money (even though by any definition the money was his own to dispose of in any manner he chose). The opposition questioned under what authority Dr. Powell had purchased the farm, why it was in his wife's name, and even accused him of going back to the Booker T. Washington philosophy of vocational education. But my father vested the title in his wife's name as he did with everything of value he owned. The reasons for so vesting the title were twofold. The first was the fact that if the farm was vested in the school's name, there was the risk that creditors might seize the farm in payment for monies owed them. The second was that the amount of driving my father did, with its attendant risks, dictated the he vest the title to the farm in his wife's name as a precaution against legal troubles arising from an automobile accident. To avoid further strife, Dr. Powell revested the title in the names of three trustees. But by this time it should have been apparent to my father that no matter what he did the enemy faction was sure to find fault.
Dr. Allen also contested the construction of the new library and science building. He warned that it was no time for Virginia Seminary to embark upon a new building program. Instead of a new building, Allen called for a larger student body, more and better paid instructors, the installation of a minimum amount of equipment and books as would enable the school to qualify for state rating for the high school and junior college departments, and the resumption of the teacher-training department. Apparently, Dr. Allen was out of touch with the realities of the times, for this was a time when science was coming into its own, when on every level of education, the study of science was being promoted and emphasized, a time when the nation was on the threshold of the great explosive expansion of scientific study and knowledge that increasingly placed science at the forefront in America's colleges and universities.
The wonder is not that Dr. Powell resigned when he did, but that he did not resign before he did. He had carried a mind-boggling double load for many years and even the strongest of us weary after a while in the face of unrelenting, unceasing, and hostile opposition. Particularly is this true when there is little support and no prospect for relief in sight.
How tragic it was that Dr. Powell, a quiet, unassuming, retiring man, was not able to gather from the constituency and from among the trustees enough reinforcement and support to encourage him to continue. There were those who supported Dr. Powell of course, but, for the most part, they too were quiet, rather reserved men, not much given to the raucous, noisy, strident behavior that characterized the opposition. The objections of the Powell forces could hardly be heard against the tumultuous outcries of the opposition.
The most striking thing about Dr. Powell's resignation is the fact that there was not then, nor has there been in the more than fifty years since, a single word of thanks to Dr. Powell for the fifteen years of toil and sacrifice that he expended in behalf of the school. Nor has there been any other show of gratitude of which I am aware. Visit the school, look around, and except for a photograph of him hanging in the hallway of Humbles Hall, there is nothing whatever on the grounds to indicate that this remarkable man ever passed this way. No day was named in his honor, no acknowledgment or testimonial was ever offered in appreciation of his efforts, no building bears his name, no annual convention honors his presidency -- not even a room has been dedicated to his memory.
So, does this prove that evil triumphs over good, that the politically savvy prosper while those who work for the larger good are vanquished? At first glance it might seem so, but the backing of Dr. Allen and his goals proved the undoing of Virginia Seminary, as we shall see. In the long run, evil is always discredited.
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