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All the Presidents of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus

June 24, 2021

As early as 1856, African American Presbyterian ministers had gathered in caucuses, beginning with the Evangelical Association of Colored Ministers of Congregational and Presbyterian Churches, organized at Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City. From 1957 until 1968, however, there was no national gathering of Black Presbyterians. With the understanding that Black Presbyterians during the foment of Black Power had a responsibility to change the majority-white denomination, Clarence Cave, Thelma Adair, and other prominent Black ministers and elders gathered in St. Louis in 1968 and elected leadership of a new group, Black Presbyterians United. Since 1988, this group dedicated to empowering the people of the African diaspora has been known as the National Black Presbyterian Caucus.

1968 Tony Butts
Tony Butts, about 1968, at right; a letter in response to the 1970 BPU gathering, on "blackanizing" the membership.

BPU's first president was E. Wellington Butts II, known as Tony. Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1937, Butts graduated from Fisk University and McCormick Theological Seminary, and was ordained by the Presbytery of Southern Virginia in August 1962. In 1964 he took the pastorate of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey. Committed personally to urban ministry, he was sold on Englewood as being a suburban community with city problems. Becoming a community pillar in a short time, after the 1967 uprising in the city, he was called as a witness to the Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorder. Notably, when asked when he first heard of impending civil unrest in Englewood, Butts testified that he first heard news from the mayor, who even knew the date and time rioting would begin in advance. Butts went on to serve a narcotics rehabilitation center in New York. He died 16 May 1972, only 35 years old, and was mourned by the people of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church, back home in Newport News.

1972 Kermit Overton
Kermit Overton at the 1971 UPCUSA General Assembly in Rochester

Kermit Everett Overton was born in June 1924 in Austin, Texas, and served in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 to 1945. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1951 and completed a Divinity degree at Lincoln University in 1958. A member of Berean Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.), in the fifties Overton worked at YMCAs in New Jersey, was a case worker for the Philadelphia Department of Welfare, and was a chaplain to migrant workers under the auspices of the New Jersey Council of Churches.

 

"The Protestant churches have been conspicuous by their silence during this crisis," a 1966 letter to COEMAR headquarters from Kermit Overton.

From 1964 to 1967 he served as a pastor and industrial chaplain of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, working in Port Harcourt at the beginning of the Nigerian-Biafran War. Returning to Philadelphia in 1968, Overton worked at the John Gloucester House, an experimental ministry project of the presbytery in South Philadelphia, before taking the pastorate at First African Presbyterian Church in 1970. Overton was moderator of the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1979. He retired from First African in 1989, and died in 1996.


1975 Thelma Adair
Thelma Adair, from "To Walk Together" (1982)

Thelma Adair, ruling elder of Mount Morris Presbyterian Church, advocate for children and migrant families, pioneer of Head Start, and jewel of Harlem was elected president of BPU in 1975. Born August 29th 1920, she grew up in Iron Station, North Carolina, part of a large Baptist family. She graduated from Barber Scotia College and in 1940 married the Presbyterian minister Eugene Adair. The couple moved to Harlem in 1942 when Eugene took the pastorate of Mount Morris. Thelma completed a doctorate at Teachers College, and taught at Queens College, specializing in early childhood education. The Adairs organized a Harlem community center and early learning school in Harlem in 1944 -- a forerunner of the federal Head Start program -- which now bears their names. As the first Black woman elected moderator of the Church in 1976, Thelma served as an international advocate, visiting 70 countries. She would reprise that kind of work in 1980 as president of Church Women United. In recent public appearances her voice retains the tone and tenor of forty or more years ago, reminding audiences that we guarantee a changed future by maintaining the health and well-being of children. 


1977 Jason Jerome Cooper

Jason Jerome Cooper was elected president of BPU in 1977. He was born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania in 1930. He graduated from Lincoln University with a degree in psychology in 1954, and completed a Divinity degree there in 1957. Ordained in Donegal Presbytery in 1957 he served Faith United Presbyterian Church in York, Pa. before taking the pastorate at Berean Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1963. During 32 years in Philadelphia, Cooper was active in movements for affordable housing, in prison ministry, and served on the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter commission. Cooper was moderator of the Synod of the Trinity in 1984. In his late career he served as pastor of New Spirit Community Presbyterian Church in southwest Philadelphia. He died in 2008.

1980 Claude Kilgore

Claude Kilgore, another Lincoln alum, was elected president in 1980. Born in 1921 in Macon, Georgia, Kilgore grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated from Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia, in 1947, completed his Divinity degree at Lincoln in 1951 and was ordained that year by Donegal Presbytery. Kilgore served as pastor of 13th Avenue Presbyterian Church (Newark, N.J.) from 1957 to 1963, and at Westminster-Bethany Presbyterian Church (Brooklyn, N.Y.) from 1963 to 1965. From 1965 to 1970 he served in Christian social ministry for the Lancaster County Council of Churches. In 1970 he came back to Ohio to work for the Toledo Council of Churches. In the late 1970s Kilgore moved to the Bay Area, helping to reorganize Ingleside Presbyterian Church (San Francisco, Calif.). In May 1980, he led a group of Black leaders in a multi-day consultation with Gayraud Wilmore on Black Presbyterianism, the fruit of which was Wilmore's Black and Presbyterian: the Heritage and the Hope. Kilgore introduces the work as a chronicle of how "Black believers would not be denied the opportunity to witness to Jesus Christ as Savior and Liberator through the instrumentality of a predominantly white and often racist institution." He died in 2001.


1983 Lenton Gunn Jr.
Lenton Gunn, right, with wife Evelyn Jenkins Gunn and granddaughter Lekeisha, 1995

Lenton Gunn was the long-serving pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, elected president of BPU in 1983. He was born in April 1939 in Greensboro, Florida, graduated from Stillman College in 1961 and from Johnson C. Smith seminary in 1964. Gunn served city churches in the midwest before coming to St. James in 1977, and during his tenure maintained the historic church, and partnered with other churches in the pursuit of peace and economic justice. In 1982, as part of the Harlem Peacemaking Community, Gunn mobilized neighbors to call for an end to the nuclear arms race, directly relating military extravagance to neighborhood impoverishment. In 1990 he repaired the church's limestone steps with a grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy. He died in 2002.


1992 Willie Dell
Willie Dell, about 1978

In 1973, Willie Dell became the first Black woman elected to city council in Richmond, Virginia. Dell was a social worker, serving as director of the Richmond Community Senior Center for 20 years, and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. Her spouse, the Presbyterian minister Nathan Dell, longtime pastor of Woodville Presbyterian Church, described her as "a servant of people and God." Her public witness went back to the boycott of the segregated lunch counters of Richmond's biggest department stores, Thalhimer's and Miller & Rhoads, and the protests surrounding the detention of the Richmond 34. Dell's election flowed from a U.S. Supreme Court mandated change in Richmond's councilmanic districts -- in 1970 the city annexed 23 square miles of majority white Chesterfield County in order to diminish Black electoral power. A defender of the aged and the impoverished, Dell was also known as an upsetter -- when she was elected to council, councilmembers did not have office space or administrative staff. Dell set up a card table in council chambers in order to handle calls from her constituents, and sat in until councilmembers gained support staff. She served as a Presbyterian representative at interfaith and antipoverty gatherings in Zimbabwe, Kenya, the Soviet Union, and Cuba. In the late 1980s she began relief work in Haiti, working in a home for boys.


1995 Lawrence Bethel

 

Lawrence Bethel, president of the NBPC beginning in 1995, was by his own reckoning not a typical minister. "He chain smokes. He plays the lottery weekly," said one local newspaper profile in 1995, but most significantly to the readers of the Hampton Roads Daily Press, Bethel came to the public defense of Allen Iverson in 1993, when the future hall of famer was convicted on charges stemming from a fight at a bowling alley. Bethel, then president of the Newport News chapter of the NAACP, could not remain silent: "The Iverson issue was an issue of justice. The fight was wrong, but the consequences were unjust. You had both sides involved in a brawl. That should have been looked at, and it wasn't."

Bethel was born in January 1942 in Miami, Florida, and graduated from Grambling State University in 1963. He spent four years in the United States Air Force, from 1964 to 1968, and had a decade-long career in marketing before hearing the call to ministry. His first pastorate was St. Luke Presbyterian Church (Orangeburg, S.C.), installed there by the Presbytery of Atlantic in 1982. In 1991 he took he pastorate at Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church (Newport News, Va.), and served as a tireless advocate for the East End neighborhood. He died in 1998.


1998 Jesse C. Swanigan

Jesse Swanigan, a corporate auditor for Boeing and charter member of Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church (St. Louis, Mo.) was elected president of the Caucus in 1998. He is a senior lecturer in finance at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. As a young man he was inspired to join the Presbyterian church by the Rev. Dr. William G. Gillespie, who rebuilt Cote Brilliante from abandonment into a 600-member congregation. When Gillespie passed due to complications from Alzheimer's disease, Swanigan dedicated himself to advocacy for a cure. A longtime commissioner to the Synod of Mid America, Swanigan has long advocated for growing the ranks of Black Presbyterian leaders. The Synod named its fellowship program for diversifying mid council leadership after him in 2015.


2000 Rev. Dr. Curtis A. Jones

Curtis A. Jones grew up Presbyterian in West Philadelphia, and graduated from Thomas Edison High School in Fairhill. Caught up in the Black Power movement, he joined in protests against the closure of Girard College, and organized hospital workers, before being called to ministry. Jones graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained by the Presbytery of Newark in 1981 and served congregations in Dallas, Baltimore, and Newark over 30 years. Alongside Gayraud Wilmore, Jones developed the 1995 Call for Unity and Diversity, in part a critical response to how the liberatory call of the Confession of 1967 played out in the life of the church. In 2013 he came out of retirement to reorganize Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Overbrook. As a minister, Jones does not shy from confronting powers and principalities: "Jesus preached that heaven didn’t just begin in the afterlife. When he was talking to the thief on the cross he said you will be with me in paradise. We can create some of that right here. We don’t have to go to heaven. So, we should challenge our leaders right now to make things better."


2004 Rev. Dr. Jerry Cannon

Jerry Cannon, president of the NBPC beginning in 2004, was born in Kannapolis, N.C. He graduated from Virginia State University, and from Johnson C. Smith seminary, and completed a Doctorate of Ministry at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He has described himself and his sister Katie Geneva Cannon as Catawba Presbytery bookends -- she was the first woman ordained in the all-Black presbytery, and he was the last person ordained in Catawba at all. He undertook the pastorate of C. N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. in 1992. Cannon has served at the national agency level of the PC(USA) in the Office of African American Congregational Support, and serves on the board of the Presbyterian Foundation. 

2007 Gregory J. Bentley

Gregory Bentley, currently co-moderator of the General Assembly with Elona Street-Stewart, was president of the NBPC in 2007. Bentley was born in Thomasville, Alabama in October 1969 and raised in Pine Hill, growing up in the Primitive Baptist Church. He graduated from Stillman College in 1990, strongly directed toward ministry by the Presbyterian C. H. Thomas -- who told Bentley ministers must have "the learning and the burning," Bentley completed a Master of Divinity at the Interdenominational Theological Center in 1995 and a Master of Education at Auburn in 1997. He was ordained that year and took the pastorate of Northern Heights Presbyterian Church (Selma, Ala.), while teaching high school biology. He has been pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since 2012.

2010 Arlene Gordon
Arlene Gordon and Eugene Farlough, of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church, from the Arlene Gordon papers, 19-0539

Arlene Gordon is a Presbyterian minister and executive. Born in 1942 in Woodville, Va., she completed a degree in business administration from Southeastern University (Washington, D.C.); a master's of Divinity at San Francisco Theological Seminary; and a doctorate of Divinity at United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio). Ordained by the Presbytery of San Francisco in 1991, she was associate pastor at Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church (Richmond, Calif.) alongside Eugene Farlough. She has served as an associate director of the Congregational Ministries Division, and as an executive presbyter in Detroit and Tropical Florida Presbyteries.

2015 David Wallace
David and Iris Wallace at Radcliffe Presbyterian Church (Atlanta, Ga.), from the David Wallace papers, 21-0310

David Lawrence Wallace Sr. is a Presbyterian minister and longtime dean of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. Born in 1947, he graduated from Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte, N.C.) in 1969, completed the master of divinity at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in 1972, and completed a doctorate of ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in 1988. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Catawba in 1972 and served as pastor of Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church (Macon, Ga.) and Church of the Master (Atlanta, Ga.) from 1975 to 1991. He worked at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary from 1983 to 2007, serving 14 years as dean.

2018 Rev. Dr. Thomas Priest

Tom Priest was born in El Paso, Texas, the oldest child of an Army family. He graduated from Howard University with a degree in civil engineering, and completed as Master of Sciences in engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, before embarking on a career in Detroit's automotive sector. Hearing the call to ministry, he finished a Doctor of Divinity at Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit, and was ordained in Detroit Presbytery in 2013. Tom has been moderator of Detroit Presbytery, chair of the PC(USA) Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, and president of the Michigan Black Presbyterian Caucus. He's currently the pastor of Roanoke Island Presbyterian Church (Manteo, N.C.)

2021 Rev. Dr. Charles Heyward, Sr.

Charles Heyward, the current president of NBPC, is pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church, Edisto Island, South Carolina. Born and rasied in John's Island, S.C., he graduated from Albany State University (Albany, Ga.) in 1972, and had a long career as a corporate accountant before hearing the call to ministry. Heyward completed a Master and a Doctorate of Divinity at Columbia Theological Seminary, and was ordained in the Presbytery of Philadelphia in 1988. He was pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in West Philadelphia for eight years before coming to St. James Presbyterian Church (James Island, S.C.). He has served at all levels of the PC(USA), including two terms as moderator of the Presbytery of Charleston-Atlantic, and as a trustee of Columbia Theological Seminary. He is currently pastor of Edisto Presbyterian Church (Edisto Island, S.C.).

A note about this roll: our sources for the complete list of presidents are in places contradictory. We welcome clarifications and additions from members of the Caucus especially. 

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