Black History Month: Samuel DeWitt Proctor

Black History Month: Samuel DeWitt Proctor

The following post is written by our pastoral intern Julius Thomas. It is the third part of a series during Black History Month called 4×4, in which we will be doing four short summaries of literary works written by authors of African descent. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

“There can be no peace without justice, but we must pursue both without adding to the problem by engaging in inflammatory rhetoric that exacerbate an already polarized situation” (194).

As profound as Dr. Proctor’s words are, it is a sad reality that they are still relevant today. These words written over two decades ago still serve as the backdrop to the American social and political spheres. The sentiment he presented in his autobiography, The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith, helps us to hope for a better tomorrow yet lament the realities of today.

Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was born in 1921 in Virginia. He was raised by hard-working, well-educated, Christian parents who expected the same from Dr. Proctor and his siblings. The drive attained from his parents provided the backdrop for his accomplished career. After graduating from Virginia Union University with his Bachelors, he went on to acquire a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Theology from Boston University. His continuous desire to learn would become his life’s calling. He later became the president of his alma mater, Virginia Union University, and after that he became the president of North Carolina A&T State University, where he mentored one of his more famous students, Reverend Jesse Jackson. Additionally, at various points in his life, he served as the associate director of the Peace Corps operation in Africa, the president of the National Council of Churches, a professor at Rutgers University, and pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Proctor’s autobiography The Substance of Things Hoped For provides a unique insight to what life was like for a middle class African American during and after the Civil Rights era. Dr. Proctor peeled back the curtain to show his audience his struggles of being a black man working and learning in predominantly white arenas. He worked for “the man” while still taking pride in his black heritage.

However, his work was not in vain. The Substance of Things Hoped For helps us to see that Dr. Proctor’s prestigious positions were not his ultimate goal but a means to accomplish his ultimate goal. As he states in his autobiography, “I saw my task as an agent for change in the lives of individuals as well as an agent of social change” (54). He used his positions to influence African Americans and the American people as a whole to unify and strive for something greater. His hope was not just for the overall betterment of the African American race, but for reconciliation to occur between whites and blacks. He understood that “[t]he goal of black progress was clear: we wanted in, to become full participants and not marginalized mendicants” (96).

Dr. Proctor’s “no peace without justice” quote is hopefully not the end of the story, but it represents the struggle for a new story—one which strives for a better tomorrow where his quote is not relevant.

Work Cited

Proctor, Dr. Samuel Dewitt. The Substance of Things Hoped for: A Memoir of African American Faith. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995.