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100-year-old alumnus addresses class at Southwestern

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Students in Tom Vann’s Leadership in Christian Ministry class at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were treated to a sermon delivered by a 100-year-old African American graduate of the seminary. Eugene Florence was born Feb. 29, 1904. He was awarded a diploma in theology from Southwestern on May 4, 1951.

After Florence ascended the platform to take his place behind the pulpit, that unique phenomenon happened that preachers alternatively refer to as anointing, unction or filling of the Holy Spirit: When he began to preach, the years seemed to melt away. His voice grew stronger, his eyes twinkled, he made effective use of jokes and sermon illustrations, and a smile was never far away as he preached a word of encouragement from Matthew 7: 24-29.

“The rock is Jesus Christ,” Florence said. “Even if the world passes away, Christ will still stand.”

He was 39 years old in 1943 when he began attending classes at Southwestern. Since only night classes were available to African American students at the time, he attended classes two nights a week. It took him eight years to complete his coursework.

Florence pastored churches in Granbury and Decatur, Texas, and raised a family in Fort Worth while tackling his studies. Beginning in the late 1960s and for decades after, Florence was a fixture on the campus of Texas Christian University where he worked on the janitorial staff during the week even as he kept pastoring churches on the weekends.

Today he lives in Fort Worth next to his youngest daughter, who is 73. He has lost count of how many great- and great-great grandchildren he has.

“We will have storms in our life; we will have rains which try to wash away our belief,” Florence preached. “If the rain can wash away our beliefs, then they are worth nothing. Christ wants us to hold on to Him, and believe in Him, and He will be with us all the way.”

Florence lives what he preaches. After his Nov. 18 sermon, Florence fielded questions from the students.

He told the class that he outlived five wives and three of his four children. Pain still crosses his face as he talks about his first wife, whom he married at 17 years old. She was “the love of my life … the mother of my four children,” he said. The infection that took her life could have been treated with simple antibiotics that are commonly available today.

Other stories he shared revealed a man keenly aware of history unfolding around him. Dates and times came readily in his responses.

Florence related memories of listening to his grandmother tell him about being freed from slavery after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

He also remembers trying to enlist for service as a chaplain in the U.S. Army during World War II and being turned down because he was over 40 years old and had four children at home.

Florence talked about his beloved garden, noting that vegetables and exercise promote good health.

“Collard greens have iron, and so does cabbage,” Florence said. He warned the students that overcooking vegetables will rob them of their vitamins.

He does not let his love for his garden get in the way of his love for people. He told about how he shared the Gospel recently with a young man the police had arrested for stealing Florence’s gardening tools from the shed.

“You need to pray, and sing, and get around more people who feel the same way,” Florence told the young man.

Before the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case struck down the Reconstruction-era legal doctrine known as “separate but equal,” and before the civil rights era of the 1960s, Southwestern sought to bring theological education to African American preachers in Texas.

Starting in 1940, the seminary opened what were then called “Negro extension centers” in places like Beaumont, Austin, Waco and Mexia, Texas. Students could earn diplomas in theology, the equivalent of an undergraduate associate degree.

Professors such as S.A. Newman, upper-level students like Phil Tilden (B.D. 1949, M.Div. 1973) and even local pastors volunteered to teach courses at these extension centers. Ministers like Florence enrolled. The seminary continued to examine other ways to extend its ministry of education to African Americans.

Then, under the leadership of Southwestern President E.D. Head and trustees’ President Archie J. Holt (MATh 1920), the seminary board of trustees on Nov. 28, 1950, passed a policy admitting African American “graduates of senior colleges who have received definite calls from the Lord for definite religious work, as regular students in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.” This policy opened up master’s- and doctorate-level education to African American ministers.

This policy matched similar ones being considered by the trustees of Golden Gate Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. By 1958, all six Southern Baptist seminaries followed suit and had opened up admissions to students regardless of race.

On Southwestern’s Fort Worth campus, the diploma-granting extension held classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Florence and other preachers were awarded a diploma after they had obtained 62 credit hours in such courses as Old Testament, New Testament, philosophy of religion and church history.

Vann, whose class Florence addressed, had heard about him several months earlier and made contact with him. Vann, associate professor of pastoral ministry at Southwestern, invited Florence to speak to his class because he wanted the students to see and hear firsthand Florence’s testimony of perseverance and faithfulness.

“Sadly, many ministers get started and don’t finish,” Vann said. “Here’s a man who stuck to it since 1936…. He hung in there. He is what we call in Scripture ‘an overcomer,’ one who through his faith persevered.”

Florence was asked by Vann to give some last words of advice before closing the session. Florence’s response was immediate.

“Keep the faith and be honest,” he said. “And have love for all people; not just for some people, but for everyone.”

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  • Brent Thompson