Celebrate and learn with us this February (and always!)

This year, we will celebrate Black History Month by:

  • Honoring Black Leaders in Hisotry (see below!)
  • Continuing our Racial Justice Group Study, reading The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Sundays, 12:15-1:45)
  • Remembering our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement in worship on February 16. Folks who haven’t yet signed our banner will be invited to do so as a sign of hope, solidarity, and a commitment to learn and pursue real justice.
  • Hosting a Bystander Intervention training on February 16.
  • Welcoming guest preacher Rev. Laura Kigweba James on February 23 for both services.

Honoring Black Leaders in History

Continuing our recent tradition, members of the SSUMC racial justice group will be bringing you short bios on influential Black leaders that we want to celebrate! Some of you may know these artists, teachers, pastors, and activists, but others of you might not. We hope you’ll look forward to these each week.


Mai Gray (1922-2010)

Methodist ActivistMai H. Gray, shown in this 2004 file photograph, died May 6 at St. Louis University Hospital. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

Mai Gray was the first African-American woman to be president of United Methodist Women, and was deeply dedicated both to the Methodist tradition and to fighting segregation.

Born in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1922, Gray worked with her husband, a Methodist pastor, to build a coalition of leadership in the Central Jurisdiction, the racially segregated administrative division that existed from 1939 until The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968. Shortly after the Church was formed, in 1976, she became president of the Women’s Division, and served until 1980. Her love for United Methodist women “was apparent in all the ways that she offered her leadership,” said Harriett Olson, the organization’s top executive. “She really had a chance to shape who we are today.”

One of her crowning accomplishments was the creation of the organization’s Charter for Racial Justice, which emphasized eliminating institutional racism in the church and the world. “She knew how to deal with conflict,” one fellow UMW leader said. “Her strong commitment to anti-racism was essential when we were dealing with the Charter for Racial Justice policies.” The charter was adopted by United Methodist Women in 1978 and by the denomination as a whole in 1980.

As a teacher, Gray valued education. She graduated from Lane College, Gammon Theological Seminary, and the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She spent 40 years as a public-school teacher and recalled the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which banned segregation in schools, as a “wonderful moment.” She encouraged all of her children to attend college, and they each eventually obtained advanced degrees.

Gray was wholly committed to the Methodist denomination–from the segregated period of the Central Jurisdiction to the creation of The United Methodist Church and, with it, United Methodist Women. In addition to her work as president of the Women’s Division, she was involved in the World Methodist Council, served as a delegate to General Conference in both 1980 and 1984, and was a member of the Board of Directors of St. Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary. Gray died in 2010, shortly after attending the United Methodist Women Assembly in St. Louis.

Biography adapted from: https://www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/ and the UMC.org archives


Ella Baker (1903 – 1986)

Civil Rights ActivistImage result for ella baker

Proof that visibility is not necessary to make an impact, Ella Baker is one of history’s lesser-known civil rights heroes, yet one of the most important. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the head of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker was its backbone.

Born on Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in North Carolina, Baker cultivated her passion and desire for social justice at a young age.  Her grandmother, who was a slave, once told her a story of being whipped for refusing to marry a man of her slave owner’s choosing — fueling Baker’s desire for systematic change and justice for her people.

In the 1940s, she developed a grassroots approach as an NAACP field secretary to gather and convince black people of the group’s message — a vision that holds true today — that a society of individuals can and should exist without discrimination based on race.”  In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help King form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which she facilitated protests, built campaigns and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

Baker did grow frustrated at the lack of gender equality within the group, and came close to quitting in 1960. But then, on Feb. 1, four black college students sat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.  After being denied service, they were asked to leave. Instead, they refused to leave and a movement was born.

A graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, who during her time there often challenged university policies, Baker viewed young people as one of the strongest and most important aspects of the civil rights movement.  Inspired by the courageous sit-ins, Baker laid the framework for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC became one of the most important organizations in American civil rights history because of its commitment to effecting change through Freedom Rides and its particular emphasis on the importance of voting rights for African-Americans.

Baker earned the nickname “Fundi,” which is Swahili for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation.  As a dedicated change agent, Baker taught young people that their spirit was essential to the movement. As long as they had the audacity to dream of a better, equal and brighter tomorrow — through the means of relentless peaceful protest and endurance — a fairer society awaited them. Baker died on Jan. 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday.

Give light, and people will find the way.” – Ella Baker

Biography adapted from: Trudy Joseph and Callan Mathis, The Undefeated 44:  44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World


Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960)

Novelist, Writer

Hurston, the author of four novels, including the now beloved and celebrated Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937) and the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was dismissed as a southern bumpkin by her male contemporaries. Even Langston Hughes, who co-founded Fire magazine with her and Wallace Thurman in 1926, called her an “outrageous woman.”

Hurston chose to write the way black people in the South — and in particular the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised — actually spoke.  She received criticism for using the vernacular of her community, but defended her style as being central to her storytelling and her art.

She spent six years studying at Howard University, from 1918 to 1924, which Hurston regarded as a clearinghouse of “Negro money, beauty and prestige.”  While she was a student there, Hurston founded The Hilltop, Howard’s student-run newspaper.

As a folklorist, Hurston is part of a literary tradition that shares its ethos with the blues and with contemporary musical acts such as Alabama Shakes, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and OutKast. You can draw lines from Hurston’s earnest interest in hoodoo to Beyoncé’s embrace of all things Southern gothic in Lemonade.  It was Alice Walker, who in 1975, brought Hurston out of the American literary hinterlands with Looking for Zora, her essay published in Ms. Magazine.

But Hurston retained a self-assured elegance and wit that didn’t bother worrying itself with outside acceptance.  And it’s that sort of thinking that allowed her to gift us with this gem of quotation, and a philosophy we could all stand to internalize, Southern or not: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry.  It merely astonishes me,” Hurston once said.  “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?  It’s beyond me.”

Adapted from Soraya Nadia McDonald’s biography in, The Undefeated 44:  44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World


Alvin Ailey (1931 – 1989)

Founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Although Ailey, the legendary modern dance pioneer, choreographer and civil rights artist-as-activist, died nearly 30 years ago, many of his best-known pieces have become as emblematic of vibrant, relevant American art as tap dance, jazz, the literature of Toni Morrison and hip-hop.  Ailey explored issues of social justice, racism and spirituality in the African-American experience.  This was during the height of the civil rights movement, when the notion of black classically trained dancers moving to the music of Duke Ellington, gospel, blues, Latin and African pop was truly revolutionary, if not unfathomable.

Born into poverty in Texas in 1931, Ailey drew from his emotional well of close-knit black churches, rural juke joints, fiery protest songs and a lonely childhood as a closeted gay man to fuel his passion for dance.  He befriended many of his fellow mid-century American masters (Maya Angelou, Carmen De Lavallade, Merce Cunningham and Katherine Dunham, to name a few) while living in New York.  After Ailey’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, the company and school grew into the premier repository for emerging black choreographers, and is still the most popular dance touring company on the international circuit.

Ailey created “a human dance company and school that didn’t fit any model,” said author and arts and dance patron, Susan Fales-Hill.  “His dancers were and are multicultural, and his company was an amalgam of the African and European diaspora.  He always addressed the pain of the African-American journey, but he also celebrated the triumph and redemption of the human spirit” in pieces such as Revelation (1960), Ailey’s most celebrated work.  The up-from-slavery dance suite finds beauty in the midst of tragedy and pain, celebrates black folks’ resilience and humanity, and allows hope to overcome tribulation.  “Ailey understood that the arts are a litmus test for who’s civilized and who isn’t civilized,” Fales-Hill said. “The fact that he raised people of color to the level of great universally recognized artists was an enormous triumph.”

Adapted from Jill Hudson’s biography in The Undefeated 44:  44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World


Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. (May 22, 1930 – May 25, 2019)Image result for dr leffall

Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall, Jr. was born May 22, 1930, in Tallahassee, Florida. In 1948, at the age of 18, he was earned a degree from Florida A & M College, graduating with highest honors. In 1952, he earned an M.D. degree from Howard University College of Medicine ranking first in his class. After completing his surgical training pursued a surgical oncology fellowship and later served at a U.S. Army Hospital in Germany before returning to Howard University as a faculty member in the Department of Surgery, where he taught and led in various capacities for over 50 years.

Dr. Leffall devoted his life to the study of cancer, particularly among African Americans. In 1979, as President of the American Cancer Society, he launched a program to address the challenge of cancer among Black Americans with special attention to the increasing severity of cancer in this population. This program had implications for similar studies concerning other racial and ethnic ministries. This was the first program of this type in our nation addressing the problems of cancer health disparities. Today, nearly all oncology groups recognize this issue of racial disparity as one of their major priorities.

Dr. Leffall’s dedication and excellence in his work was recognized far and wide. He was the first African American president of many prominent and influential medical institutions including The American College of Surgeons the American Cancer Society, and the Society of Surgical Oncology. He received 15 honorary degrees and served the administration and students at Howard University with distinction across roles from professor to dean to advisor to the President of the University. In 2011, he received the W. Montague Cobb Lifetime achievement Award from the National Medical Association. His contributions to the practice of medicine and the study of cancer has influenced countless lives for the better.


Henrietta Lacks ((1920 – 1951)

HeLa Cell Line

Henrietta Lacks was an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine; her cells are saving lives today even though she died in 1951.

Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore took tissue from her cancerous tumor to study the disease. They did not ask for her consent at the time of removing these cells. Doctors were shocked to observe that her cells behaved differently than cells collected from other samples – they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests.

Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa,— now worth