Rev. George Dunn and the School at Franklinton

11 Feb 2024 in

Meaghan Wright, CLA Librarian

Less than 18 months ago, the UCC Historical Council voted to recognize the Afro-Christian Convention as the “fifth stream” of the United Church of Christ. In addition to acknowledging and affirming the Afro-Christian stream as equally important to the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical, and Reformed traditions, their decision was intended to highlight the history and promote the future of the Afro-Christian tradition.

One of the initial actions leaders took to share and promote the history of this tradition was publishing The Afro-Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ (2023), edited by Mother Yvonne V. Delk. This month we are joining with our friends at the Franklinton Center at Bricks and the United Church of Christ Historical Council to encourage individuals and communities to commit to study The Afro-Christian Convention. Using the companion study guide you can: discover the origins of the Afro-Christian Convention in the nineteenth century, explore the values that sustained Afro-Christian tradition throughout the twentieth century, and celebrate the legacy of Afro-Christians that widens and deepens Congregational commitments for ministry during the twenty-first century and beyond.

An important story emerges from printed materials in the Congregational Library & Archives’ collection about the early years of the Afro-Christian Convention and the founding of a school that Vivian Lucas says is “considered by many to be the most significant achievement of the Christian denomination.”

In 1880, a series of letters published in the Herald of Gospel Liberty by determined ministers would set the course for a new era of schooling in Franklinton, North Carolina. Classes for the education of Black children and adults in this town were recorded as early as 1871. Education was an important goal for many Black communities following the Civil War, as many had “lived in sections where it was a crime to educate them” (Young, October 1880). A school at Franklinton was proposed in 1872 to fill a great need by educating children and adults, as well as training ministers for the Christian church, a proposal made by a local layman, S. L. Long. In 1878 his son, Rev. Henry E. Long, was appointed principal of a public school for Black children, which was operated from the local Christian church. The North Carolina and Virginia Afro-Christian conferences established a school board that was to be part of the Christian church and ordered Rev. Long to combine the public and Christian schools under the name: Franklinton Christian Institute.

The pastor of the Franklinton Afro-Christian Church, Rev. George W. Dunn, was concerned about the school’s lack of funds and set about to secure aid. He wrote two letters, which were published in the Herald of Gospel Liberty in early 1880. Rev. Dunn acknowledged that white Northern Christian churches might not know much about the Afro-Christian churches in the South, and he dedicated space to introduce himself and the Afro-Christian tradition, stating, “I belong to that denomination known as the Christian denomination,” and, having been converted following his freedom from enslavement, he had worked in the church for twelve years and been “trying to preach for five.” He listed specific leaders in the Christian movement whose faith they shared, such as James Kelly, Abner Jones, and Elias Smith, and stated his Christian-aligned principles of faith. 

Having asserted his connection to the Christian movement, he explained the need for a school. He framed aid by faraway white Christians as a duty, pointing out that the Black Christians in North Carolina and Virginia were behind “all other [denominations] in schooling our ministers, and in educating our children” because they had received no help. The white Southerners would not teach them as they did not “desire the improvement or elevation and education among the colored people,” and the white Northern churches had not sent school aid or teachers, unlike the Northern Baptists and Methodists. He illustrated the issue clearly by mentioning that other denominations were trying to induce them to join their churches in exchange for education. He asked the readers to consider their condition and that, “if we had a teacher, if we had any assistance at all, we could improve ourselves in every respect whatever” (Dunn, February 1880).

Rev. Dunn’s shrewd argument achieved its intended effect, although the requested aid came with strings in the form of the white Northern churches seeking control of the school they funded. By fall of 1880, a white minister, Rev. George C. Young of New York, was sent by the American Christian Convention to be the new principal and teach those preparing for ministry. Rev. Young also wrote letters to the Herald appealing for aid. By the next year, $1,000 (about $30,000 today) was raised for what was now known as the Franklinton Literary and Theological Christian Institute, and a new school building was opened on New Year’s Day 1882.

From the 1880s, graduates of the Christian school at Franklinton entered the ministry and grew the Afro-Christian tradition. In 1891, the name changed to Franklinton Christian College, which “was considered the place where most of the ministers (women and men) of the Afro-Christian church received their religious and theological education and was the source of leadership for most Afro-Christian churches” (Lucas, p. 50). In 1904, Rev. Henry Long, an important, long-serving leader of the school, was appointed the first Black principal of the college. He held the position until 1912 and again from 1914-1917.

Franklinton Christian College closed in 1930, but the site continued to hold conferences, retreats, and Christian educational programs, after its incorporation as the Franklinton Center in 1946. In 1954, the center joined with the former Brick School (another school for Black students that operated from 1895-1933) to become the Franklinton Center at Bricks, which continues today with the mission “to provide a nurturing home to local, national, and global programs and organizations seeking liberation.” Formerly part of the UCC Southern Conference, full power was returned to the Franklinton Center’s Board of Trustees in 2015 under mutual agreement.

This brief overview only scratches the surface of the rich and fascinating history of the Afro-Christian tradition. We highly recommend reading The Afro-Christian Convention (available at Pilgrim Press, the CLA, or check Worldcat for holdings in your local libraries) and visiting the Franklinton Center at Bricks’ website to learn more.  There is also a free study guide available for personal and community group reading and reflection on the Afro-Christian tradition.