Remembering Central Jurisdiction: ‘The story needs to be told’

Feb. 16, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Jan Snider*

When Bishop Leontine Kelly was growing up, she remembers her father giving sage advice to her brother, who was considering leaving the Methodist Church over racism. 

“He said, ‘You don’t win the battle by leaving the battlefield,’” Kelly recalls. The battle was being waged within the Methodist Church, and African Americans had become reluctant soldiers in a fight for their survival within the church structure.

Lines were drawn across the denomination’s legal framework, and in 1939, the church’s African-American members were segregated into a non-geographic unit called the Central Jurisdiction. In effect, they were singled out to be a church within a church, denied full entry to the newly formed union of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. 

United Methodists have focused new attention on the Central Jurisdiction era in the past year. Last August, many of the people who worked and lived in the Central Jurisdiction reunited in Atlanta to reflect on the segregation period and to discuss race relations in the church. A few months earlier, the denomination’s top legislative body apologized for its treatment of blacks who remained in the church despite segregation and racism.

“Those were some extremely painful times,” author Marilyn Magee Talbert says of the Central Jurisdiction. “Only when you distance yourself from it can you look back and see that the story needs to be told.”

The Crime of ’39

General Conference, the church’s lawmaking assembly, created the Central Jurisdiction in a decision that some dubbed the “Crime of ’39.”
Bishop James Thomas of Atlanta explains that the issue of slavery had split the church in 1844. And faith could not shake the racism that remained when the three branches unified in 1939.

“When a union was fully consummated there were strong voices of people, especially in the South, who did what the nation had been doing for over a century — they insisted on segregation,” Thomas says. 

More than 20 years earlier, when the three denominations began talking seriously about uniting, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had no black members. The Northern Methodist churches had nearly a quarter of a million African-American members. In 1924, the plan for uniting the denominations failed. Cited as a key factor for the failure was the lack of consensus on the status of black ministers and members.

Discussions continued, but it was clear that in order for the churches to unite, a compromise was needed. The Southern churches did not want the inclusiveness shown to African Americans by the Northern churches.

In 1938, one Southern bishop was quoted as saying, “What are you going to do if eight or 10 Negroes come and say, ‘Here are our certificates and we want to join your church?’ There is no way to keep them out.”

The Central Jurisdiction became the compromise. In the Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Church 1939, “Negro Churches” were excluded from the customary jurisdictional conferences, which were broken down by geographical boundaries. Instead, all black churches were under the umbrella of the Central Jurisdiction based on race alone.

Black leadership could only serve black congregations, and those congregations were not considered a part of the subsystems that governed their neighboring white churches. It was a decision that many regard as a shameful chapter of church history.

It was a difficult time to be a black Methodist.

“Folks stayed because the church was as much ours as anybody’s,” says Talbert, who covers the era in her book, The Past Matters: A Chronology of African Americans in the United Methodist Church.

She imagines how it must have felt to be on the wrong side of the Central Jurisdiction decision. “It was so humiliating and repulsive,” she says.

After the vote to create a segregated church, the delegates of the 1939 General Conference sang, “We Are Marching Upward to Zion.” The African-American members remained seated, some even weeping.

Politics or money?

When the Central Jurisdiction was first proposed, political opportunity was mentioned as the key advantage. Many advocates of the system spoke of increased leadership development for African Americans within the church and the sense of community that would be strengthened with the black churches.

But it was financial opportunity that was highlighted in a 1935 Time magazine article. The article pointed out that a “Negro compromise” would allow the Northern and Southern Methodist churches to reunite, which would result in the church becoming the “mightiest Protestant church in the U.S.”

The unification that excluded African Americans from geographical annual conferences would result in an operating budget of more than $1 million and more than $1 billion in property holdings (1935 values). But the magazine predicted the plan would have staunch opposition, stating, “…idealist northern liberals could, and probably would, hold up Methodism’s mighty merger on the ‘Jim Crow principle.’”

A sense of community

Thomas understands why many recall with fondness the fellowship and leadership that developed within the Central Jurisdiction, but he does not want to romanticize the situation.

“It must be remembered that black people had to have this sense of community with or without the Central Jurisdiction,” he says. “I’m old enough to remember the days before the Central Jurisdiction began. We couldn’t live in hotels, so we had to live in each other’s homes. That was community.”

He also says that the leadership that was developed within the Central Jurisdiction might have blossomed without it. “They never asked the question of how much leadership would develop if we were integrated.”

The dining room table in Bishop Kelly’s childhood home often served as a meeting place to discuss the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction. As leaders of a black church in segregated Cincinnati, Kelly’s parents often hosted families that were traveling to annual conferences and meetings within the Central Jurisdiction.

“I was taught that we are all children of God,” Kelly explains. “It was really a very powerful time in my life as we sat around our table and listened to the bishops and the lay members talk.”

The untold story, says Thomas, “is what some of us did with (those) who we call the allies of the church. A few people in the South and many in the North worked with us to try to frame the conscience of the church against segregation.”

‘Not an easy fight’

Thomas explains that the work to eliminate the Central Jurisdiction began almost immediately.  “In 1944, there was the talk of a committee. In 1948, there was the actual committee that studied the Central Jurisdiction.” It was widely felt that the time was right to move toward desegregation in the church, he said.

“It was not an easy fight,” he says. “America did not do this easily, nor did the church. There is no evidence that this was an easy process.”

In 1952, a pronouncement was made that “there is no place in the Methodist Church for racial discrimination or racial segregation.” It would be another 20 years before the final annual conferences within the Central Jurisdiction would be dissolved.

The 1964 General Conference adopted a plan for the elimination of the Central Jurisdiction. Annual conferences were urged to transfer all Methodist churches within their regions regardless of race. The General Conference leadership stated that segregated annual conferences “are incompatible with a truly inclusive Methodist Church.” 

In June 1964, the Washington and Delaware Central Jurisdiction conferences transferred into the Northeastern Jurisdiction. In groundbreaking policy, Thomas became the first African-American bishop to serve a predominantly white conference when he was assigned to Iowa.

Final days

The Central Jurisdiction’s fate was sealed by another church merger, this time one that combined the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations. The union created the United Methodist Church.

In 1967, the Central Jurisdiction held its final session. The Central Christian Advocate stated: “This final session of the Central Jurisdictional Conference, the orderly phasing out of its affairs, and the 1968 General Conference will not only mark the beginning of the United Methodist Church, but it will also signal a new era for the Negro constituency within the Methodist Church.” 

Despite the elimination of the Central Jurisdiction, the publication pointed out that the action was not a cure-all for the church’s woes: “Both the church and the unchurched, the informed and the uninformed, those who cared, and those who did not care, took note that a transition was in the making, with neither integration nor inclusiveness as being yet clearly detectable, visible and perceptibly realized goals.”

Thomas says he doesn’t think the plan would have had the support it did if not for the civil rights struggles that were occurring within the United States as a whole. When the civil rights movement gained force in 1955, the nation experienced riots, freedom rides, marches and sit-ins that continued for more than a decade.

“It was the wave of national changes that finally persuaded the church that something had to be done,” Thomas says. And, in 1968, less than a month after the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the church saw an end to the segregated system.

A need for vigilance

The Evangelical United Brethren’s influence was the final driving force for change, Kelly said. “The EUBs would no longer accept segregation. That was a very clear position.”

The decision was not popular with everyone. “There were some very strong personalities that did not want it to occur,” Talbert says. Some Methodist churches decided to become independent. Many of those churches remain in the South today.

African Americans had concerns too. “There were no assurances with what was going to happen with the leadership that had developed within the Central Jurisdiction,” she says. “Even though there were some who said ‘don’t rock the boat,’ there still was this feeling of hope that the church was going to be one church.”

By rejecting segregation, the church unlocked the door to a more inclusive future, but many leaders say the struggle is not over. “There’s still a need to be vigilant and still a need to call the church to live out the mandates of the Gospel. One would not have thought that one would still have to be doing that in the 21st century,” Talbert says. 

“Racism,” Kelly declares, “has no business in the church of Jesus Christ.”

Thomas, however, sees the need to address the issue of justice on all levels. He dreams of a rekindled spirit, like that which eliminated the church’s segregationist policies, applied to all forms of injustice.

He joins others in expressing the importance of educating the youth of the United Methodist Church on the history of the Central Jurisdiction. 

“We are only 37 years away from the Central Jurisdiction; the world has moved on,” Thomas says. But he says it’s vital that all know the path that brought us here.

*Snider is a freelance producer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact:  Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

Multimedia Resources
"Unlocking the Future": A UMNS Report
Audio Interview:"We Remember" Sharing the Story
Audio Interview:"We Remember" Sharing the Story
Portrait Gallery: Faces of the Central Jurisdiction
Photo Gallery: Pictures From the Past and Present

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