Schirin Rangnick

The Yale Black Seminarians launched an exhibit in the Yale Divinity School Library earlier this fall to celebrate the student group’s fifty years of faith, justice and advocacy.

The exhibit, titled “Down Through the Years: The Legacy of the Yale Black Seminarians,” was curated by YBS President Jathan Martin DIV ’21. Martin, who attended a historically black college and university, said that he intended to focus on the links between HBCUs and activism at Yale. YBS, which is a faith-based student group, intends to highlight some of their most significant milestones in social justice and on-campus activism on behalf of black students.

“The YBS exhibit brings to light a powerful and beautiful history that was kept in the dark for so long,” YBS Secretary Khaleelah Harris DIV ’21 said in an email to the News. “As of this month, I am able to walk into the library of Yale Divinity School and share space with the living history of an organization that simply too for liberation. This exhibit is a reminder of the backs upon which we continue to climb and encourages me to evade the bondage of complacency.”

One of the artifacts exhibited is a document proposing a “Yale Black Studies Program” at the University. The Seminarians penned the proposal to “force [the community] to discuss the unsettled issue of particularity as it related to theological education” and the black experience, according to a blurb under the document. As a result, the Yale Divinity School created the Black Church Studies program, which emboldens “interdenominational inquiry and engagement with the history, thought and practices of African American Churches and other Christian communities of African descent,” according to the exhibit. Upon running for president of the Yale Black Seminarians, Martin said searched through the archives and was astonished to discover the breadth of information on the Black Seminarians. This motivated him to plan an exhibit, Martin said.

“When I was asking around about when [the YBS] was founded, nobody knew,” said Martin. “I went through the archives, found so much, talked to [the librarian] at the day missions room if we could have an exhibit and found we were able to make this happen.”

According to Martin, exhibit highlights both “internal activism” at Yale and “external activism” concerning broader social issues related to faith. Included in the exhibit is a piece highlighting all of the Divinity School’s black female alumni.

The exhibit, contained within two glass display cases, is housed within the Divinity School Library. The more recent photos and documents show the group’s journey to becoming a prominent student organization in the school. The display bears evidence to their advocacy for increasing the number of professors of color at the school.

“Yale Black Seminarians is an integral part of the YDS community, and I’m so thrilled that their history is on display,” YDS Student Government President Jessica Church DIV ’21 wrote in an email to the News. “I hope all students, especially white students, make time to visit the exhibit and soak up some of their story.”

The exhibit also details several past controversies between the school administration and members of YBS. For example, a news clipping from 1969 announces the appointment of Rev. Colin W. Williams as the dean of Yale Divinity School. According to the article, the school based its selection process on three factors: the faculty committee, the student committee and a Black Seminarian group. But the exhibit also features a clipping from Warner Sanford — a YBS member at the time — that challenged this notion. The group “didn’t find Williams to be particularly sensitive to the needs of Black Students at the Divinity School,” the clipping stated.

The Black Seminarians also forged an important connection with historically black colleges and universities in the 1970s. These bonds allowed for a diverse group of black students to come to Yale after attaining a degree from an HBCU, the exhibit said.

The exhibit closes on December 20.

John Besche | john.besche@yale.edu

Simi Olurin | simi.olurin@yale.edu