African American Leaders: Calvin Houston
Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.
Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.
Calvin Houston was a risk-taker, described as ministering “late at night on the street corners of the ghetto communities talking with thieves, addicts, pimps, and prostitutes.”
Born in August 1932 in Davidson, North Carolina, Calvin was one of ten children of Logan Houston and Alice Torrence. The Presbyterian church defined his early life. He attended Stillman College (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) and finished a Bachelor of Divinity at Union Presbyterian Seminary (Richmond, Va.). In 1959, the PCUS Presbytery of Central Alabama commissioned Houston as an evangelist, giving him the task of standing up a Black church in Mobile, Alabama's Hillsdale neighborhood. Starting from a living room Sunday School, Hillsdale Presbyterian Church would join the presbytery in 1970.
Mobile in the 1950s and 1960s, its economy boosted by its Navy shipyard and its Air Force base, did not make the kind of headlines that Montgomery and Selma did. A moderate consensus, largely surrounding the political career of city commissioner Joseph Langan, held sway--Langan easily beat Ku Klux Klan leader E. C. Barnard for a commissioner’s seat in 1957--and the city desegregated more swiftly than other Southern cities in the wake of Brown v Board. The municipal golf course and public library were desegregated in 1961; segregated seating on city buses ended and Murphy High School was desegregated in 1963.
Despite these steps forward, White Citizen’s Councils and the Klan were still active, and at one point Houston was compelled to seek a court injunction against the Mobile Klan on behalf of his church. Driving back from court proceedings in Montgomery, according to Frank T. Wilson’s account in Black Presbyterians in Ministry, Houston found the teenage daughter of the Mobile Grand Wizard, her car broken down by the side of the road. Still hoping to make Mobile by nightfall, conscious of his exposure on the deserted highway, Houston stopped and helped the teenager, who would later become “an avid, committed worker in Houston’s local civil rights organization.”
Houston served Rice Memorial Presbyterian Church in Atlanta from 1966 to 1983, and from the 1970s on led the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta (UTOA), an interreligious social justice network. In the words of James Costen, Houston and UTOA became de facto field educators for the students of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary, which had none. “Even in a Black institution there was concern for going off into radical ministries, street ministries and the like,” Costen recounted in 1995, and Houston filled that niche.
Calvin Houston retired from Atlanta Presbytery in 1984, and died in 1989.
Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Calvin Houston.