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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Trying to expand Presbyterian church's appeal to African Americans

Caldwell was one of few black Presbyterians, so he was asked to travel the country to drum up black membership. He recalls some of his experiences, including scolding Presbyterian leaders for their derogatory comments about Martin Luther King and finding a black minister to incite black Christians to join the church. Many black ministers were uncomfortable preaching to white congregations.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edwin Caldwell, March 2, 2001. Interview K-0202. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I was in the Church of Reconciliation as one of the first blacks in the Church. Church of Reconciliation is on Elliot Road. When it split off from the Presbyterian Church downtown they wanted to start an integrated church. The only way to do that was to start it from the beginning. They asked me if I would be involved in that, so I was involved in the Presbyterian Church. Well if you are black then you get up on all the committees of the Orange Presbyterian. I was on the Presbyterian State Senate attended all those meetings. I was a national leader in the Presbyterian Church. Presbyterian Church was the southern part of the Presbyterian Church, after the Civil War they split off so you don't find many blacks sitting in the Presbyterian Church. They sent me away, where did we go? Louisiana, Alabama somewhere. Mobile Alabama. We had a national meeting. Generally you don't get to go to these national meetings, you almost have to be dead. You have to have proven yourself. Because I am black I get to go as a young man, because they wanted to show me off. If you really wanted to know, they wanted to show me off. I always remember, there must have been seven eight hundred people in this convention I wasn't going to say anything. I remember them saying all these derogatory things about Reverend King. These were church people and they were calling him communist and saying he is doing this and doing that. They are going to pass these resolutions against Dr. King. I hadn't planned to say anything but, I marched up the pulpit. They had microphones strategically located at different places. I didn't go to no microphone I went in the pulpit. I told them people, "You are church people, I can't believe the kinds of things about somebody that I think-you all are talking like I am not even here. I am a black man and you are saying all these things and you are supposed to be church people. I don't have any business being in this church." You could hear pin drop. I mean I let them have it. When I sat down I got a standing ovation, that's when I knew that I was able to speak and I was able to get people to listen. I wouldn't have stood up in front of those people. Let me tell you one other thing that they asked me to do, because there were so few blacks maybe three or four of us in that whole thing. The guy from the pulpit learned my name he said, "We are going to ask Ed Caldwell to lead us in a word of prayer." And he closed his eyes, I was going like "No, I am not going to stand up there." It was silent in there for a while and I think he opened his eyes, he opened one eye and I am going like this so he started to pray. I have had quite a few experiences, both in the Presbyterian Church as well as School Board. I really like Presbyterian Church, I got to be a leader in there. I just got to be a leader, people began to look up to me. I got to travel all over the Southeast for the Presbyterian Church. I got to travel because they were wondering why more blacks wouldn't join the Presbyterian Church, for a long time I was one of the few. That remained, people would come and then they would leave. I hung in there with them, because what they were trying to do I thought was good. I said, "Well if you want blacks to join us then you have to have something in here that they can identify with. We are going to have a black minister." They agreed. We went all over the nation trying to recruit a black minister. One of the things about blacks they would let us have it. "That church up there you all are not serious about bringing on a black minister." We invited them to come up and preach, a couple of them we offered them the job. We said, "We offer you the job. If you want the job, you got it." They had to do some soul searching. A lot of them just couldn't pull it off being a black minister in a predominately white church. We had some assistant ministers that were black. We were very serious about finding a black minister. We had a few assistant white ministers that were very good. It was a liberal church. We experimented with worship and different things. We had Norman Vincent Peale's son there, he was minister for a while. He was over a Duke University. We were able to go over to the University of Chicago, we went to Memphis Tennessee, there was a guy named Eizequial Bell. He was a fiery thing, in Memphis Tennessee. He was in the Civil Rights thing, everything he was out there, had a lot of pull. So we asked him to come. He was one of the ones that didn't think we were serious and we offered him the job. He turned it down and said, "I think I need to stay here in Memphis." We went down to Sanford, there was a Presbyterian Church there, but its Southern Part it's the other Presbyterian Church. We offered him the job he turned it down. We got fellow to come here named Marion Phillips. Marion is over in the medical school now in the dean's office. He stayed here for a while and preached. I think Marion found it very difficult trying to gear his sermons to a wide variation of people. I used to get on Marion all the time, "Look, don't come with that kind of sermon. You have to give me a little soul here." Marion's a very good speaker and a very good storyteller. Storytelling is what makes the black church go, you tell stories. It's a performance. Marion had this down pat. Marion stayed there for a while and then it got to be too much for him. One thing that I always had is I was grounded because I knew where I was coming from and things that people used to say to me that I ought to do. I'd weigh it but then I'd tell them, "This is what you need to do." There was a lady who had a beautiful voice name was Joyce Peck. Her husband name is Bill Peck they were in the religion department. Joyce could just sing. She would just sing all these operetta kind of songs. I one day said to Joyce, she said, "Ed why can't we get more people." I said, "Joyce you gotten sing a little soul, sing a spiritual every once in a while. I like your voice but you don't move me. I want to hear something that goes up my spine." I can say those kinds of things. Minister at the time was named Boyd Suil. Boyd's father was Malcolm Suil who was Attorney General of North Carolina at that time. Boyd was torn because he wanted to be in politics. He went into religion because he didn't want to compete with his father. Boyd was always involved in politics, that's how we met. I used to really get on Boyd. You have to understand that there were people who loved Boyd. Boyd was this young fellow, all the women love young ministers. I used to get on Boyd. Boyd would go off on the wrong track I would get on him. We became friends. I pretty much ran the Church of Reconciliation. When they started hero-worshiping Boyd I just get up and tell them, "Boyd is not the church, Boyd is the minister of the church." One time Boyd was about to leave and I told Boyd, "You are my friend and I wish you good luck, but you are not the Church of Reconciliation." I told the people, "You all hang in here. We have to let Boyd go, he is no the Church." I was able to get up and say those kinds of things.