Fifty Years Make a Difference for Sam Oni

Each semester I end my history courses by asking students to look ahead fifty years and imagine having grown children and perhaps grandchildren. The next step is to imagine what changes might have taken place. Is there anything they value enough to devote their life to it so that the world is changed for the better half a century from now?

Recent years have seen the fiftieth anniversary of key events in the Civil Rights Movement. I remind students of the sacrifices made by a large number of students and adults in the 50s and 60s to bring about a world of more racial equality than was thought possible by most Americans in earlier days.

Several people in Georgia are now honored for their leading roles. In 1961, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter entered the University of Georgia as the result of a court ruling. Shortly afterward Rufus Harris, President of Mercer University, began seeking a way to voluntarily integrate Mercer University, a private school funded by Georgia Baptists. This resulted in the admittance of Sam Oni of Ghana, a product of the Baptist mission field, in 1963. The University of Georgia and Mercer University recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of those events as a major step forward in the history of those institutions.

A point that has received little attention is that Sam Oni is an African who played a significant role in the American Civil Rights Movement. He participated in a number of recognized historic events and came to know some of the more famous leaders. Today he remains relatively unknown even as the number of Africans have grown significantly in Atlanta and surrounding communities.

Sam arrived in 1963 following a year-long battle with the Baptists over his admittance to the university. He was assigned a room in the freshman dormitory with the popular basketball player Don Baxter who was a ministerial student. About fifty yards down the street from the dormitory was Tatnall Square Baptist Church on the campus of the university. His first visitor was the pastor of that church who came to tell him that he would be turned away if he tried to visit their church. Don and Sam went to another church in town attended by most Mercer faculty and sought membership. Sam was singled out to be voted on. It took three ballots before outspoken opponents were defeated. Nevertheless, Sam never felt welcome when he attended church there.

Let’s move forward fifty years. Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, Amy-Jill Levine gave a series of three lectures at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia. The series was sponsored by a variety of Protestant churches in town along with the university. Sam had met Levine a few weeks earlier as she gave lectures at Mercer University and they quickly became warm friends. I invited Sam to attend the Brenau lectures, to attend my church Sunday morning, and then go to a lunch with Levine at the Episcopal Church in town.

These events were held in a town noted for its political and religious conservatism. A few years ago Gainesville was the heart of a congressional district that was identified as the most conservative district in the United States. Today it is still very conservative but also includes a growing population of retired people who come from all parts of the eastern United States. The leading Baptist church in town was a major sponsor of lectures featuring a Jewish scholar speaking on Jesus.

I attend a large Presbyterian Church. Sam joined me in attending a brief business meeting in a large social hall prior to Sunday school, which gave an opportunity to introduce him to many people. I can’t speak for how Sam felt, but the warmth and enthusiasm of the greetings from people I knew warmed me inside. We then attended the class I teach and found still more welcome. When we went into the traditional morning service, we saw an African family in the congregation, about six young black children sitting with other children for their special part of the service, and a visiting African-American family. These families and my friend Sam were treated as warmly as anyone else who walked through church doors would be treated.

My history students live in a world where they see people of all ethnicities around them in restaurants, public transportation, church – wherever they go. They have no concept of what it was like to have segregated restrooms and seating areas to protect white people from contact with black people. This is quite a change from the situation fifty years ago. The change was the product of sacrifice by many people, including my friend Sam. My hope is that they too will put themselves into something that will change the world for the better as could be seen by the treatment of Sam Oni at a Southern church last Sunday morning.