Howard Thurman Collection


Howard Thurman was an American author, educator, lecturer, pastor, and public theologian. In 1953 he was selected by Life Magazine as one of the twelve "Great Preachers" of the twentieth century. He addressed more than five-hundred colleges and institutions around the globe, received seventeen honorary degrees, and authored over twenty books.

Howard Thurman was the second child and only son born to Saul Solomon and Alice (Ambrose) Thurman in Daytona Beach, Florida, on November 18, 1899. His grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, reared the young Thurman and informed him of her experiences during the trials of slavery and of the slave's deep religious faith. In 1915, he entered Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville and matriculated to Morehouse in 1919. Thurman spent the summer of 1922 studying economics and philosophy in residence at Columbia University. In 1923, he completed his undergraduate education in economics at Morehouse College as class valedictorian.

In 1923, Thurman was offered one of the two placements allotted to black students at Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1926, he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree having served as student government president and graduating yet again as class valedictorian. Following his graduation from Rochester Theological Seminary, he served as pastor of The Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio from 1926 -1928. In the spring of 1929, Thurman was granted a Charles Fisher Kent fellowship by the National Council on Religion in Higher Education and studied mysticism with Dr. Rufus Jones at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Thurman was active in national student and youth movements such as YMCA and YWCA and was a popular speaker on their lecture circuits. In the late 1920's Thurman became the first African American board member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Thurman returned to the south to serve as Professor of Religion and Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.

In 1932, Thurman married Student Christian Movement leader, musician and social historian, Susie Bailey and in the same year was appointed chairman of the Committee on Religious Life and Professor of Theology at Howard University. Four years later, he was appointed the first dean of Howard University's Rankin Chapel.

During this time Thurman worked alongside intellectuals such as Abraham Harris, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B Dubois. He was also deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and worked with notable figures of the movement such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Burroughs, and A. Philip Randolph. 

From September 1935 to March 1936, Thurman led the Pilgrimage of Friendship, the first African-American delegation to India, Burma, and Ceylon, sponsored by the World Student Christian Federation and the Student Christian Movements of India and the United States. While in India, Thurman met Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose ideas of nonviolent revolution had a lasting influence on Thurman, and led the delegations lectureship in over 45 academic centers in the region.

In 1943, Thurman took up the co-pastorate of the newly established Church for the Fellowship of All People (Fellowship Church), an interdenominational experiment in interracial integration, and resigned his professorship and deanship at Howard University.

In 1953, President Harold Case of Boston University invited Thurman to the university as Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines in the School of Theology and Dean of Marsh Chapel. Thurman was the first African American to hold the position of dean at a majority-white university.

Thurman's popularity at Boston University reached beyond the university and into the Boston community, where for six year he was the regular Friday morning speaker on We Believe, a weekly television program on Channel 5 in Boston.

Prior to his formal retirement from Boston University, Thurman and Sue Bailey took two trips around the world as a part of their wider ministry. In 1965 Thurman left Boston University and continued his ministry as founder, chairman of the board and director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco with the purpose to enlist funds and channel them towards programs of religious, charitable, scientific, literary and educational causes. After a long illness, Thurman died at his home in San Francisco on April 10, 1981.

Scope & Content

The Howard Thurman collection consists of manuscripts, correspondence, subject files, audio recordings, and other items.

Manuscripts by Thurman in the collection include his books Deep River (1945); Deep Is the Hunger (Harper, 1950); Footprints of a Dream (Harper, 1959); The Luminous Darkness (Harper, 1965); The Search For Common Ground (Harper, 1971); his autobiography With Head and Heart (Harcourt, 1980); and a work titled A Track to the Water's Edge . Also present in the collection are numerous essays, introductions, sermons, speeches, and other shorter manuscripts by Thurman, dating from the 1930s to 1980; these items include Thurman's writing journals containing sermons and notes (1930s-1940s) and transcriptions of Thurman's sermons (1950s-1970s). Correspondence in the collection includes personal and professional letters, dating from 1929 to 1980. Significant sections of the correspondence pertain to Howard University (1929-1944), Boston University (1952-1967), the Howard Thurman Education Trust (1968-1971), San Francisco (1938-1978), speaking engagements (1965-1980), the Fellowship Church (1944-1952), CORE, and various other organizations and individuals. Notable correspondents include Sue Bailey Thurman, Langston Hughes, Coretta Scott King, Alex Haley, Michael Burke, Nelson Rockefeller, Walter Washington, Vernon Jordan, and Elizabeth Yates.

Subject files in the collection consist of files arranged by Thurman around specific topics, and containing a variety of materials. Subjects include Boston University, B.U. students, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Broadcasting Foundation of America, Hampton Institute, the U.S. State Department, biographical material, B.U's Marsh Chapel, various quotations, racial and religious tensions, Martin Luther King, Jr., painting, B.U.'s Thurman Center, writings, reviews, research, publicity, and various other topics.

Audio recordings in the collection consist of numerous cassette recordings of Thurman's sermons. These date from 1951 to 1978. Other recordings are also present, including Thurman's memorial service in 1981.

Other material in the collection includes scrapbooks from the late 1920s; Thurman's travel diary (ca. 1935); a Howard University yearbook; and a book regarding the Fellowship Church.

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