And They Were the First: A Look Into the First African American Students to Attend Christian Colleges and Universities

College graduation-May 2014

We all attended our alma maters for certain reasons. I wanted a school as far away from NC as possible. Hence, I went to a college about 430 miles away from home. I began my college “career” as a biology, pre-med major and somehow graduated with a degree in history and politics. The greatest gift I received and also gave the college was the history of their first Black alumna, Ms. Rachel Helen Flowers. Even though it was a challenging four years, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. It was no coincidence that I found Rachel’s story.

Original Marquee for Rachel Helen Flowers (2010)

My research’s beginnings in a few sentence–Originally, Rachel’s biography was about five sentences long; there was not much information about her. This led to my research on Rachel and her family in both writing and music. Despite my work, there is still much unknown about Rachel. The biggest question I hope to answer in my research is why Messiah College, known to her as Messiah Bible School and Missionary Training Home. Messiah holds its roots in the Brethren in Christ Church faith tradition.

Messiah College was founded by the Brethren in Christ, a religious group that emerged in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, around 1780. Many of the early members came from a Mennonite background and brought with them Anabaptist influences. At the outset the leaders of the new group were also influenced by the Church of the Brethren, especially on the issue of triune baptism by immersion. It was from the Church of the Brethren that the Brethren in Christ also received the insights of radical Pietism—a renewal movement in 17th century Germany. Thus in their early formation, the Brethren in Christ were shaped by the theological streams of both Anabaptism and Pietism.

Rachel’s family held a long history with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church; therefore, it does not make sense of her decision to attend Messiah. But on the other hand, her decision makes sense. She was a woman of faith and received her education from a faith-based institution. Still, she chose not to attend a black college or university. Why was this?

The college seemed to have no issue with Rachel’s attendance. In fact, five years before her admission, four Armenian international students attended the institution. I cannot recreate her college experience or speak to the reactions of students, educators, and the community unless there is a hidden journal somewhere (I pray there is). In this course of this research, I am also curious in where Rachel falls within this history of integration at Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

Rachel Flowers, 1916-18, Messiah College Archives

Selected Pennsylvania Institutions

I cannot gather a trend or pattern. This is due to the lack of information available (including from colleges I excluded from the list). Schools that neighbor Messiah held a later integration date. I may never know the reasoning behind her decision to attend my alma mater. I went because it was far, the school provided me with a full-tuition scholarship, and it was strong academically. Perhaps Rachel attended for similar reasons. It was close to her family as her father was old in age, it was inexpensive for the Flowers, and by 1916 garnered a good reputation. Whatever the reason may be she attended, graduated, and never returned for unknown reasons. This may speak to her experience at the institution, but her brother attended Messiah Academy in 1923 following in his sister’s footsteps, yet as with Rachel, he never returned.

Vincent Flowers, 1927, Messiah College Archives

With more answers, come more questions.

Until the next post,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s