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JCSU celebrates connection with First United Presbyterian Church

Nov. 13, 2018 / Charlotte, N.C.--Johnson C. Smith University celebrated its historical bond with First United Presbyterian Church (USA) at the church's Homecoming on Nov. 11, 2018. They are two of the oldest African-American institutions in Charlotte, and have deeply entwined roots.

Homecoming at church is traditionally the time of great gatherings, when we share stories of how we came to be. In 1866, Rev. Samuel C. Alexander purchased the land on which the church was originally established. The same reverend, with the help of others, saw the need to establish an institution in the South to educate newly emancipated African Americans as they advanced into freedom. Their vision manifested in an institution eventually known as Johnson C. Smith University. Together, JCSU graduates and members of First United church became leaders in Charlotte’s African-American community and beyond.

Sunday’s service was themed “Loving our Past, Living our Present, Faith in our Future.” The JCSU Concert Choir performed and members who are also JCSU alumni stood up and testified to the value of their experiences at the university.

Etta Lynn ’69 gave the Old Testament reading of Psalm 77:11-14. Jane Stratford ’71 presented JCSU with a gift of $2,000 from the United in Jazz Ministry. Clement Bowman ’13 compared JCSU’s historic Biddle Hall to a lighthouse. “The motto is 'sit lux,' let there be light. And Biddle Hall was for me a beacon of hope and guidance. JCSU gave me one of the greatest opportunities of my life, to grow.”

Trustee Emeritus Mattie Grigsby ’48 praised Denise McGregor Armbrister and keynote speaker Pres. Clarence Armbrister, whom she introduced. “He came in as the 14th president with a willing spirit and worked very hard,” she noted.

Armbrister was visibly moved as he spoke of the “mutual reaffirmation of our common kinship” and shared the story of his maternal grandfather, Rev. Henry Higgs, who was born in the Bahamas in the late 19th century and moved to Coconut Grove, a small enclave near Miami, Florida. Higgs was active in fighting for Black people’s political and civil liberation through Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A. movement. For this he was nearly lynched and run out of town.

“His belief in equality and justice for his people laid the foundation for my own beliefs,” Armbrister said. “Because of him I have the responsibility to stand up and do the best I can.”

Today’s societal problems of police violence, discrimination, economical disparities and environmental woes were created by humans, and therefore can be solved by humans, Armbrister stressed. “Together, we have the moral conviction to educate a new generation of critical thinkers—the best historians, political scientists, and educators—and train them to think both critically and morally. The future is in the hands of our grandchildren, and we must prepare them to face problems we never have before.”

The Homecoming celebration was a joyous reminder of the bond shared by two of Charlotte’s oldest African-American institutions.  

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