On Wednesday evening, January 17, 2001, a group of Unitarian Universalists who had spent the day traveling from various parts of the country to Berkeley, California, began to trickle into the lobby of the Hotel Durant, a short walk from the University of California and Starr King School for the Ministry.  When I arrived with Yielbonzie Charles Johnson (Yielbonzie is a former Professor of Ministry at Starr King School), to pick up the group for dinner, the atmosphere in the lobby was not exactly what you would call subdued.  No travel-weary souls here!

It had been thirty years since some of these Unitarian Universalists had seen each other.  A few had remained in close contact, but getting together with the larger group made for a happy reunion.  They would be together three days for a conversation long overdue.  Everyone who gathered had participated in the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), the Black Affairs Council (BAC), or were their white supporters (FULLBAC).  These groups (and others) were active during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Black Empowerment controversies within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The reason most often given by participants for deciding to come to Berkeley in January 2001 was to "get the story straight." A conference planned solely by participants in these groups had never taken place.  There were occasional invitations to recount events of thirty-plus years ago, but never a time when the participants of BUUC/BAC and FULLBAC had planned their own, extended time together.  Attendees active in BUUC/BAC included Winifred Norman, Alex Poinsett, Joe Samples, Gwen Thomas, Ione Vargus, and Harold Wilson.  Attendees from FULLBAC included Victor Carpenter, Donald McKinney, Jack Mendelsohn, Roy Ockert, David Parke and Bette Sikes.

Starr King School for the Ministry agreed to provide hospitality, expenses, and a place to meet in support of the gathering.  The understanding was that the seminary would not interfere in any of the planning or organization of the conversation.  When I became the primary contact for the school, I also became responsible for seeing that this agreement was not breached.  My sense is that the seminary held to the expectation that the participants would not be expected to accommodate any agenda other than their own.

The one request the seminary made of participants was that the proceedings be taped.  Starr King would then edit and publish the outcome of the three days of conversation.  It did not take long to see that this plan was not favorably received by all present.  Clearly, a tape recorder was not appropriate in an initial conversation among individuals who had experienced intense, tumultuous, and in some cases, life-changing times together over thirty years ago.  I decided to tape only the closing conversation between participants and invited guests.  There will be further conversations.  Future gatherings will include others who participated in the Black Empowerment controversies of three decades ago, and these will provide broader, fuller accounts, compiled and published by those who lived the experience.

The open conversation was attended by about 75 people.  Starr King School President Rebecca Parker, faculty and staff of Starr King School, students of Starr King and other schools, trustees, local ministers, graduates and friends made for a standing-room-only audience interested in what was going to be said, in their own words, after three days of conversation among people who had participated in the Black Empowerment movement within the Unitarian Universalist Movement.

The conversation published herein is but a small piece of an immense and complex history.  It is full of insights, gems of humor, and harsh truths.  When Cathleen Young and I began working on this publication, my first inclination was to augment it with other materials to make it something that could be used as an educational tool for students and other interested parties.  Instead of taking it for what it is, I thought of all the missing pieces.  Some of the leaders of BUUC and BAC who left the UUA were not present.  The recounting of the history as it unfolded was missing.  The perspectives of the participants in Black and White Alternative (later changed to Black and White Action) were missing.  The programs that BUUC voted to fund were missing.  The important role that the Black Empowerment movement played in paving the way for other oppressed groups needed more development  beyond what was mentioned in the open conversation.  Theological perspectives that were brought up briefly during the conversation on Saturday afternoon deserve to be thoroughly explored.  The implications of the Black Humanist Fellowship which evolved out of BUUC are relevant to current issues within Unitarian Universalism and ought not to be overlooked.  Insights on these subjects and others on the part of the individuals who were (and continue to be) in the struggle contain sparks of hope for ways that we can move forward from this point.

The list of what I would ideally like to see in a publication goes on.  However, six months of reflection and evaluation has brought me to realize that the conversation held on January 20, 2001 must stand on its own or get stored in a cupboard.  It does stand.  It will be of use to those who want to recount the larger history.  It will also offer a glimpse into the thinking and the lives of twelve outstanding and committed individuals who have remained Unitarian Universalists.  Most of the people you will find here have been leaders among us  each in his or her own way.  The open conversation is all that is published here, along with statements given to us by some of the participants, and a timeline.  The rest needs to be attended to by people who have the real right to report.

Sometime in the future the whole of this history will be unveiled for all that it was.  The prophetic voices that have gone without praise or thanks by contemporaries will, in time, be respected for what they contributed to our justice-seeking religious tradition, and to the larger world as well.


Alicia McNary Forsey

Professor of History
Starr King School for the Ministry
Berkeley, California
July 2001

  Copyright Lucy Hitchcock
Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.

Professor of Church History

Alicia is a lifelong UU.  She is the Professor of Church History at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, and is also responsible for continuing education endeavors.  Her Ph.D. is in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Unitarian History.  In June 2000 she received final fellowship as a UU minister.  Alicia, in addition to the classes she teaches at Starr King School, is known for her outstanding online course in UU History.  She is a Board member of the UU Historical Society, Chair of the UU Scholars' Panel, current Chair of the History Section of COLLEGIUM, and Trustee of The Church of the Larger Fellowship.


Copyright 2006 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Monday 30 October 2006.


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