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New archive celebrates UU people of color

Sankofa Project shares photos and documents from past and present UUs of color.
By Jane Greer
1.18.08

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Sankofa statue

Sankofa sculpture from Ghana. (Courtesy of UU Sankofa Project)

In a denomination with a longstanding majority of white members, a new archive has been established to document the role people of color have played in the denomination, both as ministers and lay leaders.

The Unitarian Universalist Sankofa Project Archives was established in 2005 as a means of preserving, documenting, and celebrating the contributions and experiences of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists of color, starting in the nineteenth century and continuing on into the present. The project consists of a physical archive located at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago as well as an online archive featuring photos, biographical material, sermons, and other writings by Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists of color, including African Americans, Latino/Latinas, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Arabs. The Rev. Dr. Michelle Bentley, former UUA director of ministerial development and former dean of students at Meadville Lombard, is the project’s founder and director.

“The idea for the project came out of a meeting called by the UUA administration in 2003 to discuss a crisis in settlements for ministers of color,” Bentley said. “I said that I thought there was a need for such a project to document the contributions made by UU ministers of color. Our history within Unitarian Universalism is sometimes being told, but not always accurately or often. We must tell our own stories.”

So she invited UUs of color to do just that. The online archives contain 26 portraits and 17 biographical essays about ancestral and current UUs of color.

One of the first exhibits mounted by the archives was a set of photo reprints of some of Meadville Lombard’s earliest graduates of color. Among them are an 1891 photo of Watari Kitashima of Tokyo, a member of the Rissho Kosei-kai (a Japanese liberal religious group based on the Nichiren school of Buddhism, with ties to the UUA); a 1912 photo of Jamini Kanta Koar of the Brahmo Samaj (Indian religious movement promoting a monotheistic reformed Hinduism); and a 1906 photo of Don Speed Smith Goodloe, an African American graduate of Meadville Lombard and founder of Bowie State University in Maryland.

The archives also include Goodloe’s papers along with those of African American Unitarians Eugene Sparrow and Lewis McGee. These donations were arranged by the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (Skinner House, 1991). The archives are a rich resource for both casual and serious researchers, Morrison-Reed said. “The online piece gives RE teachers, ministers giving sermons, and students writing papers ready accessibility to material. If you’re a scholar doing research, then the physical archives becomes an important tool.”

The project shines a needed light on the role that people of color have played in Unitarian Universalism, Morrison-Reed said. “Given the movement’s commitment to becoming more diverse, it’s important that this resource is available. African Americans and other people of color didn’t show up yesterday.”

The word Sankofa means “to go back and reclaim the past so we can move forward” in the Akan language of Ghana. The idea is often visually portrayed using the symbol of a mythic bird flying forward while looking backward with an egg in its mouth. The egg symbolizes the future.

The project has been supported by two grants from the UU Funding Panel for Unitarian Universalism totaling $24,000 and in-kind contributions from Meadville Lombard and the UUA. Additional funds have been received through donations. Bentley’s labor has been free, although she has been able to pay student assistants for help doing research, gathering materials, and putting them online.

The project was also able to fund its first visiting scholar, the Rev. Shuma Chakravarty. Chakravarty, minister of First Congregational Church in Savage, Mont., and Peoples Congregational Church in Sidney, Mont., and author of four books, was in residence at Meadville for six days in October doing research on the Brahmo Samaj and its relationship to poet Rabindranath Tagore and Unitarian Universalism. Chakravarty gave a lecture at Meadville Lombard connecting the thought of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King Jr. The Sankofa Project hopes to be able to sponsor a visiting scholar at least once a year.


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