Logan Hampton, president of Lane College, stood onstage in the George M. Savage Memorial Chapel Feb. 27.
He was surrounded by a circle of Union’s executive leadership as Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, Union University president, led the students and faculty in a prayer of support for Lane.
“Dr. Hampton, please see all of us standing as further encouragement to you,” Oliver said during the chapel. “Lord, help us at Union to be faithful brothers and sisters with Lane, help our work to flourish together in the city.”
It was the first time in at least 18 years that any Lane president had spoken at Union.
“I think by and large the relationship between Union and Lane has formerly just been a little frosty,” said Matthew Marshall, director of the Center for Racial Reconciliation at Union.
Although both are Christian institutions separated by a mere six miles, this “frostiness” has resulted in a lack of conversation and collaboration between the two campuses on important community issues like racial reconciliation, according to current students and alumni of both campuses.
Lane, a historically black, Christian Methodist Episcopal-affiliated college and Union, a predominately white Southern Baptist-affiliated university, have occasionally addressed this issue alongside each other as partners. For example, in 2004 there was a social documentary class led by a Union professor and composed of five Lane students and nine Union students.
Collaboration like that has been rare, however.
As a result, the schools have historically modeled the tension that stems from Jackson’s divided past, according to Mary Anne Poe, director of the Center for Just and Caring communities at Union.
“In some ways, Lane and Union represent the segregated past,” Poe said. “Jackson, like much of the South, has a sad history of race relations.”
Hampton and Oliver first met several years ago working for separate Texas universities. When they were both hired this year to lead institutions in Jackson, they initiated a friendship and engaged in intentional conversations with the community.
These have strengthened the relationship between the schools and set a new precedent of cooperative unity that has aided the work of racial reconciliation in Jackson, Poe said.
In addition to Hampton’s chapel, Hampton and Oliver met with several local churches to discuss racial reconciliation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Those discussions led to another dialogue Feb. 23 among nine pastors and professors on how Christians can practically model racial reconciliation to Jackson.
“I think it is incumbent, it is our responsibility, to call our community together for conversation,” Hampton said. “That’s the kind of thing we are uniquely positioned to be able to do.”
Marshall said conversations like these are important because opportunities arise from them to begin working together toward solutions and influencing students to do the same.
“Just because [Lane and Union] come from different denominations or because the makeup of our student bodies is different shouldn’t hinder us at all from collaborating on important issues in our city,” he said. “We have to give students opportunities to begin doing that now.”
Those opportunities include a proposed mentorship program between college students and their younger peers as well as joint community service projects and a potential faculty exchange program.
Hampton said he would also like Lane students to consider graduate studies at Union. He noted that while sharing ideas is important, collaboration necessitates action.
“I think the conversations help move us in the right direction, but there’s some real hard work that has to be done of building on the foundations that have been left for us,” he said.
Nyree Smith, junior teaching English as a second language major at Union, said she thinks building on those foundations to bring the student bodies and the community together begins with personal relationships.
“I think we should be more intentional about getting over there and getting to know our brothers and sisters and listening to their stories,” she said.
Nyree’s father Mark Smith, Lane class of 1993, said he is glad cooperation between the campuses is growing, as it will strengthen the Christian witness of each institution.
“How can the two schools claim to be Christian based institutions if they can’t productively interact with one another?” he said. “I’m positive that students from both campuses can benefit from a bit of diversity.”
Hampton’s and Oliver’s leadership is one element of a larger movement in Jackson propelled by community leaders.
Prior to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day conversation, Poe had already worked with Darryl Coleman, assistant professor of religion at Lane, to gather a group of professors and administrators from both schools to think through practical solutions.
The group has plans to continue meeting semi-regularly.
Local pastors have also been building bridges. Union alumnus Justin Wainscott became pastor of First Baptist Jackson in 2010, and discovered while reading the church’s history that it split over racial tensions.
“I noticed that in 1837, the congregation had both white and black members,” he said. “And then I kept reading and saw that, in 1868, the black members left and formed their own church.”
He called the pastor of the other First Baptist, William Watson, and they began to talk. As a result, the churches celebrated their 175th anniversary together later that year and it was “beautiful,” Wainscott said.
Since then, they have had semi-regular joint services.
Both pastors said they believe unified leadership between the two influential community institutions will strengthen the work they and others are doing in Jackson.
“I think the partnership of Oliver and Hampton will be another great catalyst in building a strong Jackson and a stronger witness for the Gospel,” Watson said. “The partnership of these two institutions will for our culture build a wonderful fresh wind to fan the flames of reconciliation for generations.”
At the Martin Luther King Jr. Day dialogue, Oliver said he recognizes change will come slowly.
“We’ll try some things. We’ll fail,” Oliver said. “We’ll try some things. We’ll succeed. By God’s grace we will make Jackson more of the community he intended it to be.”