I have started checking LitBirthdays posts for broken or outdated links, and I took a closer look at the life of Buell Gordon Gallagher, born February 4, 1904; died August 1978.
Originally I thought he was black. He was president of Talladega College, a historically black college. His books had titles like American Caste and the Negro College. And in 2010, when he was originally listed on LitBirthdays, I didn’t have a photo of him. (See the revised LitBirthdays post for Gallagher here.)
He’s not black. He’s white. Why was a white guy the president of a black college? In trying to find the answer to that, I found many interesting details of Buell Gallagher’s public life. Over the next day or two I’ll tell what I’ve found.
I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t find his obituary. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. And yet over the course of 50 years of public life from the late 1920s to the 1970s, he was in contact with leaders of the civil rights movement and in his own Zelig-like way made a positive contribution to race relations in the United States.
Q: Why was a white guy president of Talladega College?
The answer is connected to the fact that Buell Gordon Gallagher, like his father, was a Congregationalist minister. In the 19th century, Congregationalists were abolitionists. Immediately after the end of the Civil War, in November 1865 (according to the Talladega College website), two freed slaves from Talladega, William Savery and Thomas Tarrant, started a school for the children of former slaves. They joined forces with the American Missionary Association (Congregationalists), which purchased the building that became Talladega College.
In 1929, Buell Gordon Gallagher graduated from New York City’s Union Theological Seminary and was ordained a Congregationalist minister. He had a brief fellowship at the London School of Economics, then returned to the New York area and settled in as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Passaic, New Jersey, from 1931 to 1933. Already he had made a commitment to minister in the realm of education for black students.
In January 1931, Gallagher wrote a letter to W.E. B. DuBois (one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and DuBois responded on February 9, 1931. You can read the letter here, which has the archival heading “Concerning advice for a White boy who wishes to do interracial work following graduation from theological seminary.”
DuBois tells Gallagher: “I must say that I do not know where the young man in question could best pursue his inter-racial work. …I imagine, however, that most of the real inter-racial work is going to be done in the future outside of organizations especially designed for such work. I should think, for instance, that a man with a church in a small town, who could bring into that church white and black, natives and foreigners, employers and employees, would in the end be doing an inter-racial job far beyond any organization. I regret to say, however, with the present attitude of white Christians, I do not anticipate that the young man would find such a job easy.”
Gallagher had higher aspirations than pastoring a small town desegregated church. Somehow he was selected to be president of Talladega College in 1933, and the fact that Talladega College did not have a black president at that time is because the American Missionary Association, the financial and administrative controlling body of the school, refused to consider a black top administrator. In fact, when Gallagher left in 1943, Talladega appointed an interim black president, James T. Cater, but only until they could find and hire a white president. It wasn’t until 1952 that the college got its first African American president.
The legacy of Gallagher’s time at Talladega College is the beautiful murals by African American artist Hale Woodruff. See Cynthia Smith’s blog post for details:
One of the murals depicts the Amistad mutiny, which is symbolic of the founding of Talladega College by Congregationalists. The ship Amistad, carrying African slaves in 1839 from Havana to a sugar plantation elsewhere in Cuba, was taken over by slaves. The renegade ship, which the Africans were trying to sail back to Africa, was subsequently captured by the U.S. Navy. The Congregationalists/abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee to get a fair trial for the African slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court and in 1841 the Court ruled the slaves were kidnapped illegally, and were released to return to Africa.
Some 30 years later, post-Civil War, the Congregationalists focused on education for the freed slaves, founding hundreds of schools across the American South. See Dr. Fannie Hicklin’s article about the Talladega connection to Amistad:
Gallagher also, according to the Alabama Encyclopedia, was known for establishing a student advisory committee on Talladega College policies. But the Amistad mural is more memorable, don’t you think?