Historically white Baptist college, black Baptist leaders to partner

GEORGETOWN, Ky. (ABP) -- Officials from four leading African-American Baptist conventions gathered at a Kentucky Baptist college Aug. 8 to launch a new partnership.

Meeting at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., the leaders agreed upon an arrangement that will include archiving important African-American resources and increasing the number of minority students at the predominately-white school, located near Lexington.

Georgetown President William Crouch called the partnership an opportunity to relate to a larger segment of the Baptist family. He will promote the arrangement at future national gatherings of the conventions. Likewise, convention leaders will be invited to campus regularly.

To increase the school's diversity -- part of a larger goal of Georgetown leaders to attract a chapter of the prestigious national Phi Beta Kappa honor society to the small school -- the college has recently added more African Americans to management and admissions positions.

Georgetown officials are also soliciting funds to purchase a former church building adjacent to the campus to house sermons and other historical materials related to black Baptist ministers. Already, the college houses the Kentucky Underground Railroad Research Institute on campus in a building that once served as slave quarters.

The college choir toured in New York and Canada last year, singing the songs popular in the Underground Railroad movement to free Southern slaves. Videotapes of the performance will air on public broadcasting stations in September, according to Eric Fruge, director of college-church relations.

Fruge said the Underground Railroad Research Institute and relationships built by Texas Baptist minister Joel Gregory developed groundwork for the project with black Baptists. Gregory, who is white but often preaches in historically African-American churches, recently served as visiting professor at Georgetown.

"Joel has been a great door-opener for us," said Fruge. "We asked him to come on and help us nurture our relationships with African Americans."

William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., told the Lexington Herald-Leader he expects the partnership to make "the rich resources that have been resident in the black church experience" available to a larger audience.

"I'm honored and privileged to be on the foundation of getting the message out that Georgetown College is available and open -- not to some, but to all," Progressive National Baptist Convention President Major Jemison told the newspaper.

Other Baptist leaders present at a ceremony promoting unity and cooperation included Melvin Von Wade, president of the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, and Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America.

"One of the accusations we hear is that Georgetown is moving toward secularization," said Fruge. "We are not...we're expanding our Baptist relationships."

Fruge admitted that the college's longtime relationship with the Kentucky Baptist Convention is more fragile since a trustee recommended by the college was not approved by the convention last year. He said the college has the legal option of severing ties with the convention should trustees decide to do so.

"We are uncertain about what the new leadership of the KBC has for the college," said Fruge, noting that Crouch, the current president, has a strong loyalty to the Southern Baptist Convention.

The full development of the college's relationship with the four major black Baptist groups is yet to be determined, said Fruge. "This is going to be a mutual exploration process."

Initially, he said, the partnership will include adding a representative from each of the Baptist conventions to the college trustee board and providing a full scholarship to be awarded to a student from each group.

Crouch said growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s, when his father, Henry Crouch, was a pastor, he witnessed much racial tension and hoped to one day be able to do something positive for race relations. This partnership, he said, will give him that opportunity.