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The Office of Black Church Studies Celebrates 50 Years

During the 2022–2023 academic year, Duke Divinity School celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Office of Black Church Studies, with a year of events culminating in an evening celebration on April 17 featuring Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams and the Martin Luther King Lecture Series on April 18 with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale.

The Office of Black Church Studies (OBCS) was founded in 1972, the first such office at Duke University and one of the earliest Black Church offices among all U.S. theological schools. The OBCS hosts world-renowned preachers and lecturers, provides formation and pastoral care for students, and leads a variety of initiatives to develop, preserve, and share resources from the Black Church for the whole church.

Cynthia Hale preaches in Goodson Chapel.

Hale preaches in Goodson Chapel as part of the Office of Black Church Studies MLK Lecture Series.

The celebration on April 17 included a premiere of a documentary about the OBCS; a concert by Adams, who also performed two songs with Duke Divinity’s Gospel Choir; and a special award recognizing key figures in the history of the OBCS.

On April 18, Hale, M.Div. ’79, the founding and senior pastor of the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga., preached in Goodson Chapel and delivered a lecture.

OBCS 50th Honorees

The OBCS 50th celebration included a celebration of honorees whose contributions have been integral to the success of the Office of Black Church Studies, including the first two Black men and women to graduate from the school: respectively, Chaplain Matthew A. Zimmerman Jr., M.Div. ’65, and the Rev. Dr. James Donald Ballard, M.Div. ’66; and the Rev. Yvonne Beasley, M.Div. ’76, and the Rev. Dr. Sadie Joyner Milton, M.Div. ’76. William C. Turner Jr., B.S.E. ’70, M.Div. ’74, Ph.D. ’84 (all Duke University), James T. and Alice Mead Cleland Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Preaching; and Bishop Joseph B. Bethea, the founding director of the OBCS, were also honored.

Matthew Zimmerman

Zimmerman entered Duke Divinity School in the fall of 1962 as one of the first two Black students officially enrolled in the M.Div. program.

Born in Rock Hill, S.C., on Dec. 9, 1941, Zimmerman graduated from Benedict College with a B.S. in biology and chemistry, intending to become a physician. A Duke recruiting poster lured him away from medicine. After receiving his M.Div. from Duke in 1965, he was ordained in the National Baptist Convention. He served as a campus minister at Idaho State University and at Morris College in South Carolina. He also earned a second master’s degree in guidance counseling at Long Island University.

In April 1967 he began his military service. He was sworn in the office of United States Army Chief of Chaplains, the first who was African American, and he assumed the rank of major general in 1990. His awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, three Meritorious Service Medals, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Vietnam Honor Medal, 1st Class. In 1990 he was the recipient of the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins Meritorious Service Award.

Photo: Zimmerman speaks at a ceremony at Chaplain’s Hill in honor of the 242nd U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Anniversary at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., July 28, 2017. RP Library / Alamy Stock Photo.

James Donald Ballard

The Rev. Dr. James Donald Ballard is a second-generation preacher, called to ministry in 1955 and served in ministry for 67 years. In 1965, Ballard led the First Institutional Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, N.C., to merge with the West End Baptist Church of the same city to form the United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, where he served as senior pastor for 45 years before retiring in 2004. Since retiring from the full-time pastorate, Ballard has served as interim pastor of numerous Baptist churches in North Carolina and on several Baptist Convention boards and councils. In March 2012, he published his first book entitled “They, Two, Became One: The Life of a Pastor, the Birth of a Church.”

Yvonne Beasley

The Rev. Yvonne Beasley was the first African American woman to graduate from Duke Divinity School in 1976. In 1975, she founded the Gardner C. Taylor Lectures on Preaching and the Martin Luther King Lecture Series at Duke Divinity — two series that are still alive and thriving at the school today. She is the first woman to be ordained in the Eastern North Carolina Association, as well as the first female clinical chaplain to be employed by the North Carolina Department of Correction.

Sadie Milton

The Rev. Dr. Sadie Milton was the first Black woman to be ordained in full connection within the United Methodist Church in the Western NC Annual Conference. Milton was also the first Black woman to be appointed to the position of campus minister under the United Methodist Church at NC A&T State University. She served as campus minister for 34 years. She currently has her own private pastoral pyschotherapy practice.

William C. Turner Jr.

The Rev. Dr. William Turner’s ongoing work focuses on pneumatology and the tradition of spirituality and preaching within the Black church. Articles on “Black Evangelicalism,” “The Musicality of Black Preaching,” and “The Black Church and the Ecumenical Tradition” reflect his teaching and writing interests. He taught in the areas of theology and Black Church Studies and directed the Office of Black Church Affairs prior to his faculty appointment in homiletics.

Turner travels widely as a preacher and lecturer. He retains active involvement in church and community activities. Turner held positions within Duke University in student affairs and Afro-American Studies before joining the Divinity School faculty. Before that, he played football for Duke. He is the pastor of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham.

Bishop Joseph B. Bethea

Bishop Joseph Bethea was the founding director of the OBCS. He was instrumental in Duke Divinity School becoming the first mainline seminary in the South to require a course in Black Church Studies for graduation. Bethea went on to become the first African American person elected to the episcopacy by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.
“Bringing Black students in was a wedge that pried the school open. It went from a good Southern institution to a world-class university. Colonialism was falling all over the world, and there was a scholarship scarcely known in the West that was receiving new attention, a scholarship that educated white people didn’t know about. It pushed back the boundaries of ignorance, forcing the engagement of the school with a broader current. It forced issues cordoned off as a ‘race problem’ right into the heart of the intellectual discourse.”

— Turner

A Year of Celebration

Michael Walrond preaches in Goodson Chapel.

Gardner C. Taylor Lectures featuring Pastor Michael A. Walrond Jr.

OBCS hosted a number of other events through the 2022–2023 academic year to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Those events include the Gardner C. Taylor Lecture on Sept. 13, 2022 with Pastor Michael A. Walrond Jr., senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York; a worship event with the Rev. Dr. Marcus D. Cosby of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston on Nov. 30, 2022; the Believers’ Church Conference Jan. 26–28, co-hosted with Shaw University Divinity School; the annual Sankofa Alumni Preaching Series throughout the month of February; and the Pauli Murray/Nannie Helen Burroughs Lecture with Dr. Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones on March 6.

Sankofa alumni preaching series featuring Elizabeth Styron Howze, M.Div. ’17. Howze is also project coordinator for the Ormond Center.
Daniel José Camacho

Sankofa alumni series with Daniel José Camacho, M.Div. ’17, preaching in Goodson Chapel. Camacho is a writer and acquisitions editor at Fortress Press.

Jay Augustine preaches in Goodson Chapel

Jay Augustine, D.Min. ’20, preaches in Goodson Chapel during the 2023 Sankofa Series. Augustine is the missional strategist for the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation.

OBCS Timeline


Dr. Fred Herzog joins the faculty at Duke Divinity School after being persuaded by Dr. H. Shelton Smith that Duke could be a place where he could honor his ordination vows by working on civil rights.

Following arrests of Black students at Greensboro sit-ins, Martin Luther King Jr. preaches at Durham’s White Rock Baptist Church.

A group of Divinity students help plan boycotts of segregated lunch counters at downtown Durham businesses.

Photo of King in White Rock Baptist Church from the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection #P0105, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


First Black Graduate from Duke Divinity School: Chaplain Matthew Zimmerman, M.Div.

James D. Ballard, who started with Zimmerman, graduated one semester later.


Allen Building Sit-Ins & Duke Woods Fire

Black students at Duke demand the establishment of an Afro-American Studies department and increased institutional support for minority students.

Divinity Dean Thomas Langford invites the Rev. Philip Cousin to teach a course on the Black church.

Divinity students form the Black Seminarians’ Union.


William C. Turner Jr. and Black students petition Duke President James Terry Sanford to create a Black Church Affairs Office.


The Rev. Joseph B. Bethea becomes inaugural Director of Office of Black Church Affairs.

Rev. Bethea served as director from 1972–1977 and went on to become a bishop in the United Methodist Church. He played an instrumental role in recruiting and supporting the first Black women to enroll at Duke Divinity School, a list which included Yvonne Beasley, Sadie Joyner, and Cynthia Hale.


Due to the creative leadership of student Yvonne Beasley, two new lecture series are launched in the Divinity School, bringing outstanding Black preachers and scholars to Duke’s campus: The inaugural MLK Lecture, featuring the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., and the inaugural Preaching Lecture (later to become the Gardner C. Taylor lecture) featuring the Rev. Dr. William A. Jones Jr. 


First Black Women Graduate from Duke Divinity School

The Rev.Yvonne Beasley, M.Div., and the Rev. Dr. Sadie Joyner Milton, M.Div., both graduate as Class of 1976.


The Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings joins the faculty at Duke Divinity School, teaching theology and Black church studies. He later becomes the first Black academic dean in the Divinity School.

The MLK Jr. Memorial Scholarship is established at Duke Divinity School.


Dr. Valerie Cooper becomes the first Black woman to receive tenure in the Divinity School.

The Pauli Murray/Nannie Helen Burroughs lecture series is established. The series features women theologians and religious scholars whose work and ministry emphasize the critical intersections of race, gender, and class, as they relate to the transformative uplift of church and society.

The legacy and ongoing mission of the OBCS will continue to be strengthened through the establishment of the Joseph Bethea Endowment Fund. Donate to the Joseph Bethea Endowment Fund by selecting “Joseph B. Bethea Fund” on the Divinity School donation website.

Duke Divinity School’s mission is to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world.