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Cities: Macon

Integrating Tattnall Square Baptist Church

In this WSB clip from September 26, 1966, Sam Oni, a Mercer University student originally from Nigeria, and Thomas Holmes, pastor of Tattnall Square Baptist Church, discuss a church policy that denies membership to blacks, which Oni had decided to challenge.  On September 25, 1966, he had attempted to integrate the church, but as he attempted to enter the building, two deacons physically blocked him.  In addition to preventing Oni from entering the building for worship, the congregation of Tattnall Square Baptist Church voted to fire Holmes.

While living in Nigeria, Oni had converted to the Baptist faith.  In 1963, he became the first black student admitted to Mercer University, a Baptist school. Oni was first introduced to Pastor Holmes through a newspaper article.  In 1966, while spending the summer in California, Oni came across a piece in the Oakland Tribune by Ralph McGill, a syndicated columnist and the white editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution.  In the article McGill commented on the parishoners' anger when Holmes had advocated for the desegregation of the church. 

According to McGill, the congregation had voted 289 to 109, or almost three to one, to close the doors of the church to blacks.  As a result of reading this article Oni was inspired to try to end segregation at the church. His activism was part of a wider effort among Mercer faculty and students, inspired by the Movement, to hold the institution to its Christian ideals.

Tattnall Square Baptist Church is located on the Mercer University campus, in a neighborhood in Macon that consists of historical antebellum homes.  In the mid 1960s, the neighborhood surrounding the church was considered by some as deteriorating, but Pastor Holmes saw it as something more.  He had a vision to renew the area and in turn to create a multiracial and multicultural ministry, and his goal was realized when Tattnall Square integrated.  In 1994, Oni returned as a guest of Mercer for the school's thirtieth anniversary of its integration.

Born and raised in Nigeria, Oni came from a country that had experienced political revolution in the 1950s and 1960s as black Africans there worked to overthrow British colonial rule. The movement among African and Caribbean nations to secure independence from European colonizers, along with India's successful break from British control in the 1940s, helped to galvanize African Americans' hope that they could end Jim Crow and the status of        second-class citizenship that it had imposed on them in the U.S.A. 

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Discussion Questions

1. Read our essays on the August 28, 1863, protest march in Albany, Georgia, by a group of clergy and on the attempts to integrate Americus's First Methodist and First Baptist Chuches.  In what particular ways did faith play a role in motivating activists in the Civil Rights Movement to confront racism and to look for creative solutions to social problems?

2. The independence movements that took place during the 1950s and 1960s in African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda helped encourage African Americans to continue pressing for freedom from oppression and the full rights of citizenship in their own nation.  Andrew Young and Charlayne Hunter are two of many Georgians who have followed up their civil rights activism in the United States with human rights activism in Africa, Asia, and other non-Western regions of the world.  What common issues or goals do Africans and African Americans currently share?  What would be beneficial and/or problematic by working together to achieve progress in these mutual cconcerns?  

3. Did Oni's background as a Nigerian, rather than an African American, have an effect on the church's resistance to its integration? Do you think they were more or less resistant because of his nationality? When faith communities embrace outsiders, what changes develop within the community, both good and bad?

Take it to the Streets!

Even with the clear class disparity between those of European and African descent in the antebellum United States, scholars believe that these two groups have largely influenced one another's spiritual practices, such as the incorporation of slave spirituals into the mainstream Protestant church. Make a list of church practices today and examine the influence each of these groups may have had on today's faith practices. Which side may have influenced the other more?

Research the practices of antebellum slave owners to ensure that their slaves were exposed to the Christian faith and the ways that slaves created their own faith practices, sometimes outside of their owner's perview. Next, study the distinct separation of whites and blacks in faith practices during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century. Why did freed people desire to worship independently of their former owners during Reconstruction while still struggling to integrate government and civic places?

Writer: Stacie Walker
Researchers: Stacie Walker and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, Delila Wilburn and Professor Barbara McCaskill   
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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