FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Three months shy of his 101st birthday, Eugene Florence was awarded his master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary during a special segment of the fall commencement service in Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 10.
Eugene Florence was born on Feb. 29, 1904. He began taking classes at Southwestern’s so-called “Negro extension centers” in 1943 when he was 39 years old. The extension centers offered only four credit hours during any one semester, and the classes were held at night on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It took him eight years to fulfill the requirements of the degree.
Prior to 1951, Southwestern did not make its master’s program available to blacks. The extension centers were started in 1940 on the seminary’s Fort Worth campus, and in churches located in Beaumont, Mission, Dallas, Austin, Waco and Mexia, Texas.
“We went back and were able to get verification of [Florence’s] records, so we really knew he had done the work,” Southwestern’s president, Paige Patterson, explained. “We were able to say, ‘Hey, look, he earned it, so let’s give it to him.’”
The seminary presented diplomas, master’s and doctorate degree to 291 graduates from the schools of music, education and theology during the commencement at Travis Avenue Baptist Church.
After the doctorate degrees were conferred, Patterson made a special pronouncement.
“In 1845 when the Southern Baptist Convention was begun … our church fathers had many, many things right,” Patterson told the graduates and their families packed into the church sanctuary.
“But they made one tragic mistake…. Our convention took a very sad position with regard to race [that] was unbiblical, ungodly and unchristian in every way.
“It is one thing to make a bad mistake; it is another thing to never come to the point where you say, ‘We were wrong.’ I am very grateful that the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago came to that point where we said, ‘We were wrong.’ We have confessed that.
“But it seems to me in my own heart that there will always be something more that we need to do to say, ‘We are sorry for that wrong position.’
“[Eugene Florence] had done everything that all the other students had done to earn a master’s degree. But, you see, we didn’t give master’s degrees in those days to men of color. What a tragedy…. There is no way, of course, that Southwestern Seminary can go back and atone for all of its mistakes in days gone by…. But we can do at least one thing to say to all of the watching world, ‘We are sorry for where we got it wrong.’ … So, our trustees and our faculty voted to change the degree that Eugene Florence received there in 1951 from the diploma to a master of divinity degree.”
Florence made his way on to the platform as the entire assembly stood with extended applause. Shouts of “Glory” and “Hallelujah” could be heard from different parts of the sanctuary. Many people dabbed at their eyes.
Afterwards, as dozens of extended family members, friends and total strangers gathered around him, Florence patiently posed for photographs, greeted the well-wishers and answered their questions.
“I feel good about it,” Florence said. “It was so long coming; I never did think it would come.”
Florence said he has been a preacher for 65 years. He pastored four churches in towns such as Stephenville, Granbury and Decatur, raised a family and simultaneously held down fulltime jobs — sometimes two or three at the same time — in construction and janitorial work. Florence has outlived five wives and three of his four children.
Today he preaches wherever he is invited. “If I am invited, I go,” he said.
Someone asked what he thought of Patterson’s comments.
“I thought he meant it from the heart,” Florence said.
Did he ever think it was unfair that he was not allowed to attend the day classes like other students back in the 1940s and 1950s?
“I had no thought about it,” Florence responded. “I just thought that was the way it was operated…. I just attended regularly for eight years.”
His youngest daughter, Emma William, 75, who lives next door to her father in Fort Worth, said she could not find words to express her happiness about the overdue master’s degree.
“I am just overjoyed,” she said. “But all I can say is just that I am glad about it…. It doesn’t matter whether they did it when it was supposed to be done, but it was done when God said it was supposed to be done … in the fullness of time.”
Williams is the youngest of the four children Florence had with his first wife whom he wed in 1925. Florence refers to his first wife as “the love of my life.” She died in 1933 of an infection that today could have been cured with common antibiotics.
“I didn’t know [my mother] because I was just 4 years old when she died,” Williams said. “But going by what they tell me, she would have been just as happy as we are.”
Patterson grew up in Beaumont, Texas, around the time the “Negro extension centers” were operating. So, conferring this degree had personal as well as professional meaning for him.
“In terms of degrees given, I must have given out thousands so far, being president of three different institutions,” Patterson said. “I’ve never had quite as much fun giving a degree as I did today.”