We Are Still Here 2024

A Short History of Black Americans in Unitarian Universalism

A Worship Service presented by Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman on February 18, 2024

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Opening Words

“Here in this holy place let us give ourselves to the Spirit of the moment and find the Sacred Oneness which binds all life together.

Knowing that much is beyond our ability to change, life calls us still to act in compassion and fairness wherever the opportunity presents itself.

Let us seize the strength of the ritual; remember, renew, and relive the taste of hard-fought struggles in the human search for justice.

We are hungry for the lessons of the past and for guidance toward the promise of the future. May we be open to all that expands our awareness, and welcome all to enter our embrace.”


– These are the words of Rev. Toni Vincent, who is the fourth Black woman to be ordained and fellowshipped as a Unitarian Universalist minister.

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Responsive Reading

Our responsive reading focuses on our seven principles. They are not dogma or doctrine, but rather a guide for us to live our lives. We remind one another that we put our faith in action by living our principles. If you will, say these words, “Blessed Be,” after each principle:

Our first principle: We honor the inherent worth and dignity of individuals.

Blessed Be!

Our second principle: We honor justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Blessed Be!

Our third principle: We honor acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Blessed Be!

Our fourth principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Blessed Be!

Our fifth principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

Blessed Be!

Our sixth principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Blessed Be!

Our seventh principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Blessed Be!

And the eighth principle that many Unitarian Universalist congregations have adopted: Journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse, multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

Blessed Be!

Thank you!

In these complex and troubled times, we hold fast to our principles and all that sustains and replenishes us – community, family, friends, values that embody the best in us as exemplified in our principles.

Blessed Be!

– Reading composed by Rev. Qiyamah

. . .



Thank you for the opportunity to share my research and reflections on the presence of Black or African American Unitarian Universalists. I will be using the terms interchangeably.


  • 2020 statistics report approximately 153,000 UUs (membership and religious education combined 187,689); you are one of the 1,027 congregations in the United States
  • 2007 statistics indicate 89% identify as white; 1% African American or Black

Speak Their Names


We begin with our legends. Legends are those individuals that have died and become ancestors that guide us in our prayers, our dreams, our meditations and, when we are open to hearing them, they may even speak to some of us. (To read more please visit our “Ancestars” page.)

Benjamin Rush

In 1784, Benjamin Rush, a Black Universalist, was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

Gloster Dalton

Gloster Dalton signed his name in the 1785 Charter of the Independent Christian Society of Gloucester.

Amy Scott

Amy Scott was one of the incorporators of the First Universalist Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1801.

Social Justice Activism

Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists were among some of the earliest religions protesting the injustices of slavery. For sure, not all Unitarians or Universalists were abolitionists, however, there is evidence to support my hypothesis that their progressive stance was a major factor that attracted Blacks and continues to do so in contemporary times.

Early Abolitionists

I offer several examples of Black Unitarian and Universalist abolitionists.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, born 1825. The 19th century abolitionist and writer was active in the suffragist, temperance, literary, children’s and Negro Women’s Club movement. She was a member of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia when she moved there in 1870; her funeral services were also held there upon her death in 1911.

Peter H. Clark

Peter H. Clark, born 1829, was a gifted educator, writer, and speaker. Clark was introduced to Unitarianism around 1857[1] and a decade later he joined First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio where he was the first and only Black member for many years. He was the first African American socialist in the United States, running for Congress in 1878.

Nathan Johnson

Nathan Johnson, a Universalist in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was active with the Underground Railroad. He became a member of New Bedford’s Universalist church in the 1830s.

Black Clergy

Rev. Dr. Yvonne Seon

We now examine some of the earliest Black Unitarian clergy, all males, since the first Black female clergy woman, Rev. Dr. Yvonne Seon was not ordained until 1981.

Rev. William Jackson

The Rev. William Jackson of New Bedford, Massachusetts announced his conversion to Unitarianism at the American Unitarian Association (AUC) autumnal convention in October 1860. They took up a collection and sent him on his way. Jackson served as chaplain of the 54th Regiment, the first all-Black regiment raised in the Civil War. The Regiment was dramatized in the movie, Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.

Rev. Joseph F. Jordan

Joseph F. Jordan was one of the first Black Universalist ministers. He and his wife, Mary, helped start a church along with the Suffolk Normal Training School in Virginia. At age 36 their daughter, Annie, assumed leadership of the school when Rev. Joseph died in 1929. She served as principal for forty-five years. She died in 1977.

Unitarian Female Activists

I now introduce you to several Black Unitarian Women that were highly visible in their social justice work notably in the Negro Women’s Club movement – their motto was “lifting as we climb.” The movement emerged not only to end lynching in the 1890s, but Black women maintained they had a “moral duty and responsibility to transform, define and shape public policy.”[2] Most of these Black Unitarian women were all well-educated and middle class and they used their privilege to protest the injustices Blacks experienced.

Fannie Barrier Williams, born in 1855, was active in the Negro Women’s Club movement. She spoke at several of the World Parliament of Religions, including the 1893 expo. She was a member of All Souls (Unitarian) Church of Chicago, Illinois.

Florida Ruffin Ridley, born 1861, and Maria L. Baldwin, born 1856, were acknowledged for their social justice work and recently schools were named in their behalf. Ridley was a founding member of Second Unitarian Church in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Maria L. Baldwin joined the Unitarian Church of the Disciples in Boston, Massachusetts in 1907.

Civil Rights Movement

Many of you are familiar with the Unitarian Universalist civil rights activists and martyrs, Viola Luizzo and Rev. James Reeb. But you may not have heard the names Margaret Mosley, Daisy Myers and Edna Mae Griffin, three Black Unitarian Universalist women.

Margaret Mosley

Margaret Mosley at age sixty-three suffered from an arthritic condition, yet she traveled from Boston where she had served as President of Community Church of Boston and later, chair of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable. She and her fearless group of six women from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom made their way to Alabama to support voting rights for Blacks.

Daisy Myers

As the first Black family in Levittown, Pennsylvania in August 1957, Myers and her husband and three children endured angry crowds. But she and her family stuck it out.[3] She later became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York in Pennsylvania.

Arnita Young Boswell

The Arnita Young Boswell Park, a 40-acre park on Chicago, Illinois’s south side is named after Arnita Young Boswell, a Black Unitarian Universalist, community activist and member of First Unitarian Church of Chicago. She fought for the rights of minorities and advocated for youth education. Boswell was the sister of the late Whitney M. Young Jr., himself a Unitarian Universalist and civil rights leader who was executive director of the National Urban League and a member of Atlanta Unitarian Church.

Edna Mae Griffin

A final profile, Edna Mae Griffin was born in 1909 and was later called the Rosa Parks of Iowa. In 1948 she protested the segregated practices of a drug store. Today a bridge and a building are named after her. She was also the first Black woman to serve on the Unitarian Universalist Association Board.

. . .

Findings about Black Involvement in Unitarian Universalism


Let’s examine some of the factors that attract Black Unitarian Universalists as well as some barriers. The question, what attracted you to Unitarian Universalism, has elicited responses like inclusivity, openness to all faiths and creeds, social justice orientation, non-creedal, theological diversity, friendliness, religious education, sense of community, intellectually rich environment, connections, freedom to be, welcoming to LGBTQ+ individuals, and the desire for community with spiritual and queer Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC).

Barriers and Obstacles

Barriers and obstacles cited: controlling images and stereotypes that negatively depict Blacks, white supremacy, tokenism, being the minority, expected to be the expert on race issues, having to challenge stereotypes, anti-Christian biases, misconceptions and expectations of being Black, white guilt, dealing with the “soft” racism of some white progressives, microaggressions, and not being listened to (much less heard).

. . .

Controversial Moments

We turn now to the most controversial moments in Unitarian Universalist history that impacted Black Unitarian Universalists.

General Assembly 1963 – Open Membership

At the 1963 General Assembly one of the issues was the exclusionary practices against African Americans in several rural Southern Universalist congregations. This proposal, intended to exclude the congregations that were excluding Blacks, was defeated. Congregational polity, the right to self-governance and autonomy was at the heart of this defeat. The overwhelming majority of the Unitarian Universalist membership opposed exclusion of Blacks in southern congregations, or anywhere. However, there existed a stronger belief in the free religious movement and therefore an unwillingness to ex-communicate or take any actions against individual congregations practicing racism and excluding Blacks. To do so some believed challenged congregational polity.[4]

Black Empowerment Controversy

The Black Empowerment Controversy in the 1970s reflected the external environment in October 1967 in this country that was filled with “a summer of racially-charged riots that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deemed, “the language of the unheard.” In response, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Commission on Religion and Race convened an “Emergency Conference on UU Response to the Black Rebellion” held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, October 1967.  The Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) was created during that conference. A proposal was designed to address racial injustices and presented the following year at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio. The proposal recommended an annual budget of $250,000 to be allocated over a four-year period. It was approved, despite the growing financial problems of the UUA. The UUA reneged on its promise which created a great deal of rancor that sullied relations and caused polarization among many UUs with some Blacks leaving, never to return.

Thomas Jefferson Ball

As part of the events planning for the 1993 General Assembly, the Planning Committee decided to sponsor the Thomas Jefferson Ball as part of the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson. The idea to host a “costume ball” and invite participants to come dressed in “period costume” was not well received. Burlap clothing in chains and shackles? It was not a look that Blacks wanted to replicate.

2017 Unitarian Universalist Association Staffing Debacle

In March 2017, news of the hiring of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the Unitarian Universalist Association, sparked controversy over whether the UUA was living out its commitment to diversity. To learn that almost all the top staff positions were held by whites and that all five regional leads supervising congregational life staff and their supervisors were white ministers was devastating news to many Black UUs and their allies that had been fighting for equity.

. . .


I have attempted to describe the context of radical Black activism out of which many Blacks emerged that brought them to Unitarianism, Universalism and UUism. We might think of them as “seekers,” looking for deeper meaning and purpose outside the confines of the traditional theologies and ideologies. Many were activists who deeply cared about the state of the world. Many were and are firmly rooted in their cultural identity yet were “culturally fluid” and embraced aspects of other cultures according to Mark Morrison-Reed. Yet they desired to maintain their cultural identity. Still others were curious about diverse faith traditions and had been exposed to and were comfortable with theological diversity. Thus, these seekers or boundary crossers engaged in integrating their spirituality and their expanding cultural identities and awareness as a natural part of their evolution and engagement with Unitarian Universalism. And some, lest we forget, are Black birthright UUs, having been born or raised Unitarian Universalists.

What may distinguish Black UUs from Blacks in general is what Morrison-Reed refers to as their “intellectual and emotional independence from the mores of the Black community.”[5]  As “come outers,” they have departed from the Black church or no church, seeking different spiritual paths and communities, thus their receptivity to UUism.

. . .

Closing Words

Rev. Shayna Lynngood, the only Black clergywoman serving in Canada, leaves us with these words:

“We are knocking because the world is in urgent need of our message, which says that all people matter…That the well-being of our earth is intrinsically linked with our own future; that peoples in other parts of the globe cry out for peace and we must hear and heed their cry; that people in our towns and cities cry out for food and shelter and a way of life…a way that knows all souls are worthy of love. (Yes,) we stand in a long line of visionary UU thinkers and believers who call to us. What they dreamed be ours to do, indeed.”

– adapted by Rev. Qiyamah A. Rahman from Rev. Shana Lynngood’s essay titled, “A Faith that Believes in Itself.”

. . .

[1] Mark D. Morrison-Reed, ed. Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011.26.

[2] What was the Purpose of the Women’s Club? https://en.m.wikipedia.org.wiki 12/3/23.

[3] Daisy Myers. Sticks n Stone: The Myers Family in Levittown. York, PA: Ream Printing Company, 2005. p x.

[4] The Commission on Appraisal of the UUA, Interdependence Renewing Congregational Polity (Boston: UUA, 1997), 140.

[5] Mark Morrison- Reed, xiv.