A two-year legal battle between American Baptist College and the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., ended Nov. 15 when a judge in Tennessee established a two-step process giving both entities input into selection of the college’s board of trustees.
The National Baptist Convention is the largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination in the United States, claiming 31,000 congregations with an estimated 7.5 million members. Its Nashville headquarters is next door to and separated by a parking lot from American Baptist College, a small private school with a history of students highly influential in the Civil Rights Movement.
American Baptist College began in 1913 as a cooperative venture between National Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention to explore the education of “colored” Baptist preachers.
Southern Baptists pledged to raise $50,000 toward establishment of the school, which opened in 1924 as American Baptist Theological Seminary on 53 acres along the Cumberland River purchased in 1921.
The 1924 charter called for both conventions to choose trustees, and in 1937 the Southern Baptist Convention agreed to share 50/50 with the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc. in the operation of the school.
The unprecedented cooperation between black and white Baptist groups created unique educational opportunities for African-American students influenced during the Civil Rights Movement by the leadership of Martin Luther King.
Alumni such as U.S. Congressman John Lewis were on the front line of the Nashville’s student sit-in movement for justice and change in the 1960s. In 2013 the college was named a Historically Black College and University, commonly referred to as an HBCU.
Discussions about the Southern Baptist Convention ending its ties with American Baptist College began during the Civil Rights era. Consistent with that, the SBC conveyed two parcels of real estate to the college’s board of trustees in 1977 and 1982. The partnership ended amicably in 1995 when a new charter provided that future trustees be “appointed” solely by the National Baptist Convention.
The NBC never implemented a process for selecting or nominating trustees, however, and from 1995 on the college routinely elected its own trustees without input from the convention. In 2013 American Baptist College passed new bylaws giving the school the sole right to self-appoint its board of trustees.
In 2015 the college’s accrediting agency cited inconsistencies between the 1995 charter and 2013 bylaws about who is responsible to appoint members to the board of trustees. About the same time, a group of conservative pastors in the National Baptist Convention began a petition urging the college to withdraw its invitation to a scholar who is openly lesbian to deliver a series of lectures about her work advocating for the rights and needs of people suffering from HIV and AIDS.
American Baptist College President Forrest Harris replied that one purpose of higher education is to expose students to a broad array of ideas and defended the invitation as consistent with the school’s “cause of social justice and equality for all.”
In 2016 the convention announced plans to appoint members to the American Baptist College board of trustees, effectively supplanting about half of the board serving at the time. Representatives of both sides formed a task force in 2017 to reconcile the perceived conflict, but a final agreement was never presented to the National Baptist Convention for a vote.
After not inquiring about board vacancies for 22 years, the National Baptist Convention broke precedent in September 2017 by appointing 19 individuals to college’s board, 10 of them new trustees, and dismissing eight members without cause.
The college responded with a lawsuit filed on Oct. 20, 2017, claiming that charter powers may be abandoned after a period of inaction or acquiescence and that the convention waived its power to appoint trustees when it stopped contributing financially to the college.
Following a bench trial last month, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the college failed to prove it had obtained the right to self-appoint trustees, but it did prove it has the authority to select trustees subject to approval vested in the NBC.
The business court formalized a two-step appointment process for trustee selection. The college will notify the convention of trustee vacancies and selections to fill future vacancies. The National Baptist Convention will approve or disapprove of the trustees selected by the college.
The American Baptist College trustee chair — Pastor Don Darius Butler of First Missionary Church in Huntsville, Alabama — described the ruling as fair, saying it “represents the spirit of a proposal that ABC offered the convention for consideration four years ago.”
The lead counsel representing American Baptist College, Nashville attorney William J. Harbison II, said he is thankful for the compromise.
“This collaborative process will protect the college’s accreditation status and academic autonomy while recognizing the longstanding relationship between the college and NBC,” he said. “We are optimistic the parties will work together to ensure the college’s future success.”