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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.

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The Rev. Vernon Tyson: Miss Amy's Witness

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News and Observer. Published 7/12/1998. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

In 1963, when the Rev. Vernon Tyson was pastor of Jonesboro Methodist Church in Sanford, he invited Dr. Samuel Proctor to preach for what was called Race Relations Sunday. Proctor, an African-American and one of the leading theologians in the United States until his death in 1997, was then president of North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. When Tyson invited him to Sanford, Proctor laughed and said, "Yes, and we'll be run out of town together."

In the 1950s and '60s, hundreds of white congregations in the South dismissed their ministers for such gestures of support for racial equality. Nevertheless, Proctor agreed to come. The invitation to Proctor sparked a controversy within Tyson's church, including a protest meeting, calls for his dismissal, death threats and self-doubts in the minister's own mind. "I thought they were going to kill him, " his wife, Martha, told me.

At his home in the Hayes-Barton neighborhood of Raleigh, Tyson, a warm man renowned as a gifted preacher and caring pastor, recalled the turning point in his church's struggle over whether to support Proctor's visit. The controversy had grown to the point that he called an emergency meeting of his administrative board the night before Proctor's arrival. Just as the meeting was about to dissolve in an uproar, a quiet, dignified older woman rose to speak.

Vernon Tyson. Photo by Chris Seward, 1998. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

In Vernon Tyson's words:
"Amy Womble was a 60-year-old who walked with a limp. She was a first-grade teacher, and she had taught all these people. She was honored. Nobody knew how she felt about social matters. And she says: "I've been sitting here just sort of listening. I hear one of us saying that this is going to tear up this church.

"Now, I don't know the man who is coming very much. I know he's president of A&T. But I know our pastor and he's not going to tear. And I don't suppose Dr. Proctor's going to tear. If there's any tearing done, we're going to do the tearing. It takes two to tear."

She went on: "I've been reading about a case up near Chapel Hill, where a teenage boy went around a curve too fast and was killed in a car crash. He was down there by the side of the road and they were just waiting for the ambulance to come pick him up and take him to the funeral home. There wasn't any signs of life. Then an airman stopped who was home on furlough, and he saw the boy and got down there and opened his mouth. He saw the man's tongue was stuck back in his throat, and he ran his finger back there and pulled out that tongue, and then he gave him mouth to mouth resuscitation. By the time the ambulance had come, he had revived.

"They had a big dinner up there for this airman in this community in Orange County, celebrating his saving that boy's life. What I haven't told you was that the boy who was saved was a white boy and the airman was a black man." She said, "Now which one of you fathers would say to that airman, 'Don't you run your black fingers down my boy's white throat'? 'Don't you put your black mouth on my boy's mouth!'"

I tell you, I have never heard the voice of the Lord with such thunder, such love, such wisdom. When I got home, Martha said, "Grayson Bryan was here and he was crying." So I went down to Grayson's house. He was a bachelor, came out of South Carolina, worked in a mill, lived with his old sainted mother. I went to his house. And when I got there he met me at the door crying, and he says: "I want to tell you preacher, something happened to me tonight. When Miss Amy was talking, something happened that ain't never happened before." He said, "A love came up in my heart. I want to tell you, I love you, I love Dr. Proctor, I love everybody!" So I went home. Martha says, "Jimmy Stevens came by here and he was crying." It was 10 o'clock, 10:15. So I went over to Jimmy and Belle's house. When I got there, he said: "I want to tell you, I went to that meeting tonight, and I was committed to voting against you. But after Miss Amy talked something happened to me. And I wanted to tell you, it's all right with me." I got threatening telephone calls, I got ugly mail. The threats came so that I called the police department, and I said: "I've been getting some ugly calls. I wouldn't care if during the night you circled my house some." They said they would. I got a letter from the editor of the paper who said a leader can go too far too fast and leave his people behind me so he doesn't have anybody.

The next day, on Sunday morning, the street out there was bumper to bumper traffic to see this man. We were singing Fosdick's hymn - "God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power, give us wisdom, give us courage for the facing of this hour" - and I looked up and the sanctuary was full. We had no visitors. Our ushers had given out of bulletins. It was our folks who had come. Dr. Proctor preached, and he didn't preach on race at all. He preached on Jacob. And he told some funny stories. And our congregation laughed, saw the joy of it, and laughed. He preached on old Jacob and didn't say a word about race and went on his way. A wise man, a wonderful man.

Well, I lost a member who had never been in the church since I had been there. He was a farmer. If I showed up after he sold tobacco, he'd give me a check for $200. I went every fall to pick up his check. That was what was expected. He moved his membership. I also got a new member, a schoolteacher who had come out of South Carolina, an unmarried woman, who said: "I've been in this community for eight years. I know what this church is standing for and I want to move my membership here." And she was a tither. So I lost a $200 farmer for a tithing school teacher. I also had a man quit coming to church. He was in the choir. And he tried to get me moved to another church in June. And when I didn't get moved, he says, "I'm back." He had buried the hatchet and he was my friend. It was a healing, wonderful thing.

My lay leader, a wholesale grocer, came into my study during this Proctor controversy. He was crying. I said, "What's wrong, Carl?" He said, "I went to see one of my merchants, and he said, 'Carl, you go up there to that church, don't you?' " Carl said, "Yeah, I go up there. I'm the lay leader." He said, "You going to support your preacher having that nigger up there?!" Carl said, "Yeah, I'm going to support him." The merchant said, "Get the hell out of here, don't ever come back in here!"

"Preacher," Carl said, "I've heard all my life about witnessing, but until this morning I didn't know a thing about it."

This is an excerpt from the "Listening for A Change" project of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Additional Resources:

Tyson, Timothy B. 2004. Blood done sign my name: a true story. New York: Crown Publishers.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "Vernon Tyson."  Photograph. 1998. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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