Protestant Educators

Picture of Olivia Pearl Stokes

Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes (1916-2002) was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in religious education. As a trailblazer for future generations, she worked to eliminate negative stereotypes of persons of African descent and women of all races. Grounded in her faith and sense of liberation for all who are oppressed, Stokes became actively involved in the struggle for justice and human dignity in the United States and abroad. An ordained Baptist minister, educator, author, ecumenical leader, and administrator, her primary interests included leadership training and development, education in the African American church, black women and children, African culture, and the educational implications of black liberation theology in the African American church.

Biography

Growing up, Education and Teaching

Olivia Pearl Stokes was born in Middlesex, North Carolina, on January 11, 1916, to William Harmon and Bessie Thomas Stokes. The second of four children, she grew up in an affluent African American family, where her father was a landowner and gentleman farmer and her mother was a schoolteacher. Throughout her life, Olivia and her family were deeply rooted in the church. Her grandfather donated the land for Stokes Chapel, a prominent African American Baptist church in Middlesex that is now a historic landmark. Members of Olivia’s family made up the majority of the congregation and served in such leadership roles as ministers, choir directors, deacons, and deaconesses. Amid the restrictions of racism and segregation, Stokes Chapel was a vibrant fellowship at the heart of the black community--it was the location for social events, leadership development, spiritual nurture, freedom movements, and political activities (Hill, 1991; A. J. Moore, 1985). Her early experience in Stokes Chapel provided an enduring model of Christian activism and leadership that would ultimately shape her life and future educational ministry.

Olivia’s father died when she was seven years old. A year later (1925), her mother moved the family to Harlem, New York to begin a new life and to ensure the best education for her children. Shortly after their arrival in New York, Olivia’s mother married Mr. Lester Lee Vann, a postal clerk and a deacon at Union Baptist Church. Olivia’s youngest brother was born to this union, increasing the number of children in the household from four to five. Her siblings were Clarence, Beatrice, Bernice, and Lester. Her sister Beatrice married an African medical student and moved to Sierra Leone in 1961. Olivia maintained a close relationship with Beatrice, which would further inspire her interest in Africa (Hill, 1991).

In 1925, Olivia began elementary school at Public School 89, under the leadership of Gertrude Ayers, an African American woman and principal of the school. In the same year, Olivia’s family joined the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Under the leadership of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Abyssinian was one of the more prominent and progressive churches in America. Olivia was particularly proud of the fact that Abyssinian Baptist Church was the first black church in America with a director of religious education who held a master’s degree. The director, Dr. Horatio S. Hill, would have a lasting impact on her life and ministry. Olivia would fondly remember August 8, 1925, as an important day at Abyssinian Baptist Church: “We’ll never forget that date. We went in, put our hands in the hands of Dr. Hill, the educator. My mother said, ‘These are my children. Educate them’” (Hill, 1991, p. 142).

The educational program at Abyssinian Baptist Church gave Olivia an opportunity to participate in a comprehensive educational ministry that expanded her horizons through after-school programs, Bible study, music, art, and drama. She was actively involved in both the church and the YWCA during the 1920s and 1930s, when Harlem was the social and artistic center of African American culture. Consequently, Olivia was exposed not only to the “interracial, intercultural, interreligious [sic] activity in New York City” (Hill, 1991, p. 172), but she also began to develop a global perspective and sensitivity. Moreover, her leadership abilities were nurtured as she participated in a number of organizations, including the United Christian Youth Movement of North America, the New York City Council of Churches, the Harlem Christian Youth Council, and the New York State Christian Youth Conference (Hill, 1991).

After completing elementary school, Olivia attended Junior High School 136, where her English teacher, a white woman by the name of Miss Wright, strongly encouraged her to attend the prestigious Hunter College High School. A school for gifted and talented youth, Hunter College High School proved to be a stimulating experience for Olivia. However, when the family finances changed after the death of her stepfather, she transferred to Wadleigh High School without her mother’s knowledge. Subsequent to completing a series of courses in secretarial studies, Olivia graduated from Wadleigh High School and in 1935 began working for the YWCA as the Associate Director of the Information Desk (Hill, 1991).

In 1941, Olivia began serving as the Associate Director of the Baptist Educational Center, which provided leadership training for 157 Black churches. A primary focus of this training was upon youth development and “women’s work” (A. J. Moore, 1985). In addition, Olivia worked concurrently with the New York State Christian Youth Council and the United Christian Youth Movement. While working full-time, Olivia attended City College and later New York University. A stellar student, she received her bachelor of arts in education in 1947 and her master of arts in religious education in 1948. Her academic success earned Olivia a fellowship to Columbia University Teachers College. She would graduate with her doctor of education in 1952. This was a groundbreaking achievement, which earned her the distinction of being the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in religious education. Her postdoctoral work included studies in human relations at Boston University and a Fulbright Fellowship to study Yoruba culture at the University of Ife in Nigeria, West Africa (Lundy 1994; Hill, 1991; Stokes, n.d.).

A number of leading scholars influenced Olivia in her studies. Through her undergraduate courses in sociology and psychology, Dr. Zorbaugh, head of the department at New York University, played a significant role in deepening Olivia’s understanding of society as well as the human psyche. In her master’s work, Dr. Samuel Hamilton, a religious educator at New York University, was instrumental in helping Olivia shape her philosophy of education. And, her doctoral studies afforded her the opportunity to take classes at both Columbia University Teachers College and Union Theological Seminary where she worked with noted scholars such as Dr. Harrison Elliot, Dr. Lewis Sherrill, Dr. Lyman Bryson, Dr. Frank Herriott, Dr. Ruth Strang, Dr. Esther Lloyd Jones, and Dr. Ernest Osborne (Hill, 1991; A. J. Moore, 1985).

Olivia’s doctoral dissertation reflected her ongoing commitment to leadership training and development. The dissertation was titled “An Evaluation of the Leadership Training Program Offered by the Baptist Educational Center, Harlem, New York, with Recommendations for Its Improvement.” It examined the quality of in-service training for church leaders participating in the Baptist Educational Center. From this examination, Olivia proposed a number of recommendations for improving the training program with particular attention to curriculum design, teaching practices, and faculty and administrative development. She would serve as Associate Director of the center from 1941 to 1952 (Hill, 1991; Smith & M. E. Moore, 1997; Stokes, n.d.).

In her dissertation and subsequent writings on leadership training and development, Olivia emphasized a holistic approach to religious education that would challenge religious educators to consider the relationships between methodology, theology, and real life concerns. She was mainly interested in developing leaders, teaching strategies, and quality educational programs that would be sensitive to the concerns of individuals within the church and wider community. Her overall concern was to empower the church and its leadership to “communicate the gospel effectively so that people [could] build a strong Christian community, life, and philosophy” (Smith & M. E. Moore, 1997, p. 105; A. J. Moore, 1985).

In 1953, Olivia became the Director of the Department of Religious Education for the Massachusetts Council of Churches. In this capacity, she worked with thirteen denominational executives and their staffs developing and implementing educational programs for a million and a half Protestants in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Since white males had generally held this position, Olivia was not surprised by the reaction of many within the church. She recalls, “The Presbyterians couldn’t believe that a black woman could have a doctorate and thirteen years’ professional experience” (Hill, 1991, p. 146). Olivia held this position for thirteen and a half years.

Before moving to the National Council of Churches to serve as Associate Director of Urban Education in the Department of Educational Development, Olivia was ordained in 1966 through the American Baptist Churches, USA. Her ordination would further prepare her for the type of ecumenical ministry embodied through the National Council of Churches. This agenda was reflected in her ordination paper, titled “Ecumenical Leadership: Nurturing and Preaching.” She recalls that her paper created quite a stir, particularly since it was ecumenically rather than denominationally focused (A. J. Moore, 1985).

Through her work at the National Council of Churches as the Associate Director of Urban Education (1966-1973), Olivia was instrumental in organizing religious education directors across the country. Amid the heightened tensions of the Civil Rights struggle, she also attempted to focus on the concerns of black leaders who felt that the National Council of Churches should do more to meet their needs and those of their congregations. Additionally, she urged the National Council of Churches to assist white leaders who felt inadequately equipped to address urban and minority issues. In this role, she saw herself as a catalyst helping leaders from both groups relate to Christ and each other from the perspective of their faith and experience. While serving as the Director of Urban Education, Olivia played a key role in developing the Black Curriculum Resource Center (Hill, 1991; A. J. Moore, 1985; Stokes, n.d.).

Her additional contributions to the National Council of Churches included leading the educational component of the Ecumenical Caribbean Studies Program in 1964 and serving as a consultant to the Education and Ministry Division from 1975 to 1976.

Although Olivia served briefly as interim pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, it was apparent that her primary ministry would be in the area of education. Subsequently, Olivia’s educational ministry extended more than forty years. Her ministry would include working with the church, community agencies, and national organizations. Olivia, however, would also make a significant contribution to the academy.

From 1973 to 1976, she served as Associate Professor of Education and chairperson for the development of a multiethnic, multicultural teacher education program at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York. She also taught part-time as Associate Professor in the School of Education at New York University. In addition, she served as an educational consultant to various theological schools, including Drew, Princeton, Colgate-Rochester, and Andover Newton (Stokes, n.d.).

Olivia made additional contributions to the field of education through her service as a Trustee of Berea College (1976-1988) and as a leader in White House Conferences on Education (1979, 1960, 1955). She also worked collaboratively with the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York (ABC-Metro) to develop the Urban Church Development Plan. This plan was designed to examine and establish congregations, throughout new immigrant populations, in an effort to revitalize the churches within the New York metropolitan area (Pitaro, 1992).

Of particular note, however, is Olivia’s role as founder and Executive Director of the Greater Harlem Comprehensive Guidance Center. The Center was founded in 1976 “to guide and counsel Central Harlem youth across the turbulent preteen and adolescent years to responsible adulthood” (“Stokes,” ABC People, 1992, p. 11). In essence, the program emphasized practical living and survival skills, career guidance, and cultural enrichment. Olivia served as the Executive Director from 1979 to 1990. Even upon her retirement, she continued to work with the organization as a volunteer and member of the board of directors (“Stokes,” ABC People, 1992; M. E. Moore, 1985).

Olivia’s educational ministry extended into the classroom, where she was a gifted and innovative teacher. She implemented a variety of teaching methods and techniques including discussion, experience, travel, and contextualized approaches to education. She believed that dialogue was a way to honor people’s life stories and facilitate communication. In 1967, for example, at a meeting of the World Council of Christian Education in Nairobi, Kenya, she incorporated dialogue, games, and icebreakers to encourage participants to learn about each other and overcome the cultural discord and dissension that permeated the conference (M. E. Moore, 1985; Smith & M. E. Moore, 1997).

Olivia believed in engaging students in a variety of experiences encouraging them to embrace a broader vision for the world community. She constantly challenged people, regardless of race, class, gender, or ethnic background, “to come together and have an experience” (A. J. Moore, 1985). She embodied this approach to education when she took a group of white, middle-class Christians to a Black Panther meeting to illustrate the reality of hunger in New York City. For Olivia, experiencing other cultures and communities could encourage persons to honor the gifts and graces of other cultures and challenge negative stereotypes and assumptions (Smith & M. E. Moore, 1997).

Olivia’s extensive travels throughout Africa and other parts of the world inspired her to lead twenty graduate study tours to West, Central, and East Africa from 1958 through 1981. Beyond the study tours, Olivia’s work in Africa (1973-1976) resulted in the development of several teacher education programs for graduate students in five Nigerian universities and afforded her the opportunity to research African family life and women’s roles in twenty African countries (1973-1976) (Hill, 1991; Lundy, 1994; Stokes, n.d.). In Olivia’s view, travel was a mode of education that could inspire both awareness and appreciation of different cultures, traditions, and people.

Olivia also emphasized contextualized approaches to Christian education. To this end, she proposed a Saturday Ethnic School designed to encourage churches to incorporate African and African American heritage in their educational ministry. The school would provide a unique curriculum emphasizing, “Black history, Black church history and contemporary issues viewed from the Black perspective.” The school’s goal would be “to celebrate the genius of the Black experience, as expressed in the life of the individual, the Black family and the Black Christian community.” It would also endeavor “to develop creativity within its members, to express their religious insights through drama, music, dance, painting, poetry and creative writing” (Stokes, 1974, p. 440). The vision for the Saturday Ethnic School would challenge churches to move towards a culturally sensitive approach to education that honors the unique heritage of African American Christianity.

Through her efforts, Olivia worked to eliminate negative stereotypes of African Americans and women by critiquing traditional teaching practices and curriculum resources and challenging religious educators to create materials and approaches that portray African Americans and women in a positive light. Moreover, she fought for all people to be included in leadership and decision-making policies that would empower them and others to transform their churches, schools, and communities.

Olivia has influenced the field of religious education not only through her teaching but also through her scholarship. To this end, she wrote numerous journal articles, chapters in books, curriculum guides, course outlines, and educational resources. She also published two children’s books featuring African culture and art. The first book, titled Why the spider lives in corners: African facts and fun (1971b), highlights various African countries. Its purpose is threefold: to introduce children to basic facts about the countries’ history, economics, and leadership; to feature everyday people who live in these countries; and to showcase popular African stories, folklore, and art. The second book, titled The beauty of being black: Folktales, Poems and art from Africa (1971a), accentuates for youth the vibrant artistic expressions of African people.

Additionally, Olivia authored two unpublished works. The first unpublished manuscript is based on a three-part series of articles that she had published on women in Africa and of African descent (Stokes, 1967a, 1967b, 1967c). In these articles, she describes and compares the life experiences and contributions of three African American women and three African women. The purpose of the series was to affirm and celebrate black women, to provide an accurate portrayal of African and African American cultures, and to eradicate misleading stereotypes of black women. Subsequently, Olivia expanded this series of articles into a full manuscript. Written in the aftermath of the struggles for national liberation, the book was “intended to educate Americans about the role of African women and their organizations in the process of re-building post-colonial Africa” (Pitaro, 1992, p. 3).

It is significant to note, however, that Olivia’s initial sensitivity to Africa and especially African women came during her childhood as a result of her mother’s support of an African American missionary from North Carolina to Africa by the name of Cora White. She was later influenced through letters, workshops, and personal visits from Mattie May Davis, a missionary from Abyssinian Baptist Church, who served in Liberia at the Suehn Baptist Mission for forty-eight years (Hill, 1991).

The second manuscript is a black hymnal that Olivia developed with Isaiah D. Ruffin. The manuscript was considered by the National Council of Churches and was intended to serve as a resource for guiding churches in integrating African American heritage into their worship services. Like the manuscript on African women, however, the black hymnal was never published.

Although her scholarship covers a wide range of topics and interests, four dominant themes emerge throughout Olivia’s work: (1) leadership training and development, which focuses on Olivia’s desire to train leaders for effective Christian ministry; (2) the role of education in the black church, which emphasizes the historical significance of the black church, the ministry of education in the black church, and the need for the church to affirm and celebrate African culture, contributions, and art; (3) the experiences and contributions of black women, which underscores the role of women and their involvement in the struggle for justice and liberation, both in Africa and in the United States; and (4) the implications of black theology in the African American church, which addresses the need for contextualized education in the black church. According to Olivia, “Black theology affirms that it is relevant to the problems of a people oppressed in the American and African societies” (Stokes, 1982, p. 94).

Consequently, she argues that Christian education from an African American perspective must, therefore, encourage critical reflection on one’s Christian faith and motivate persons towards transformation and change.

Over the years, Olivia interacted with many prominent African American leaders. Persons such as Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Benjamin E. Mays, Mary McLeod Bethune, W. E. B. Dubois, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Carter G. Woodson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, C. Eric Lincoln, George M. Johnson, and Jesse Jackson left a lasting impression on her life and ministry. Most of these leaders would also readily acknowledge her significant influence on their own life and work. Although numerous African Americans were influential in Olivia’s life, she also affirmed, “there’ve been as many white individuals who’ve helped me as there have been black” (Hill, 1991, p. 186). Olivia attributed her mother, however, with having the greatest influence in her life. For it was her mother who instilled within her foundational life lessons that included a respect for all human beings that transcended race, gender, and class differences (Hill, 1991; Stokes, 1985; Stokes, telephone interview, September 25, 1996).

Olivia maintained membership in a number of civic and professional organizations including Pi Lambda Theta, Fraternity for Women in Education; Religious Education Association, USA; American Association of University Professors; American Association for Higher Education; Afro-American Association for Study of Life and History; NAACP; National Council of Negro Women; American Association of University Women; League of Women Voters; National Education Association; American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO); African American Institute’s Educators to Africa Association; National Council of Women of the United States; and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (Stokes, n.d.).

Olivia’s many honors and awards included special recognition for outstanding achievement by the American Baptist Black Church Education Conference (1994); an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters awarded by Marymount Manhattan College; a profile in the book, Women of courage (Radcliffe College, 1981); the National Bethune Achievement Award from the National Council of Negro Women (1976); the Justice Award from the National Association of Public Continuing Education (1975); the Ecumenical Reconciliation Award from the Minister’s Interfaith Association (1966); Woman of the Year (1957); and the Sojourner Truth Award from the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1957). She is also listed in Who’s Who in North Carolina (1964), Who’s Who in America (1956), and Who’s Who in American Women (all editions) (Hill, 1991; Pitaro, 1992; Stokes, n.d.).

Throughout her life and ministry, Olivia influenced a host of students, colleagues, and friends. A testimony to her continued legacy to Christian education is noted by Dr. Virginia Sargent, former Educational Ministries’ Director of Black Church Education with the American Baptist Churches, USA: “Dr. Stokes has devoted a lifetime to the cause of Christian education within local churches, church groups and community organizations. Her witness to the nurture of young and old has extended beyond churches … touching people of all races” (Lundy, 1994). Although Olivia never married, she found great satisfaction in the unique educational work and ministry to which she felt called. Her greatest joy was nurturing, supporting, and “helping young people’s minds” (Hill, 1991, p. 141). In May of 2002 Olivia Pearl Stokes died at the age of 86.


Contributions to Christian Education

An assessment of the contributions and influence of Olivia Pearl Stokes must begin with acknowledgement of her pioneering role as a trailblazer in Christian Education. As the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in Religious Education (Columbia Teachers College), she challenged traditional expectations in the church and the academy.

Consequently, she became a transformative model for later generations of Christian educators. Although an ordained minister and a distinguished leader of the church, Olivia’s special calling would be to a ministry of Christian education, which she taught and exemplified in the United States and throughout the world.

Nurtured in the Baptist tradition, her expansive educational ministry and contributions would not be limited to the pulpit nor to the exclusive service of any particular denomination. Hers was an ecumenical ministry that sought to bridge the divide between people of different faiths, colors, classes, and gender orientations. In pulpit, podium, and publications, her innovative ministry and message were ones of challenge to traditional churches and faith-based organizations to address the rapidly changing needs of their communities and congregations. In their study of Olivia, titled “Olivia Pearl Stokes: A Living Testimony of Faith,” Yolanda Smith and Mary Elizabeth Moore (1997) point out that her efforts would often include designing innovative programs that required churches to rethink the structure and content of their educational offerings. For instance, through her work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, Olivia challenged churches to offer courses at various times throughout the week so that they could provide additional opportunities for working members to participate in the educational program. Her willingness to explore creative programming challenged religious educators to expand their course offerings to include not only Bible study, but also courses that addressed real life experiences such as “divorce, parenting, marriage enrichment, financial planning, college preparation, and job skill training” (pp. 111-112).

Her primary concern was to make faith more relevant for contemporary Christians and to spark the interest of those seeking assistance in addressing personal concerns. In addition, Olivia’s pioneering work in this area would form the basis for many churches to provide support ministries such as mentoring programs, counseling services, child care centers, social services, career planning, and computer training. Thus, for Olivia, religious education should be concerned about meeting the needs of individuals rather than an overemphasis on “buildings and programs.”

Olivia’s educational ministry would also encourage new models of leadership for the church. More than rhetoric was at play as she attempted to develop and personally model various types of leadership that could be adapted by churches and faith-based organizations. Indeed, in her own person, she tried to exemplify the highest standards of professional leadership. She herself maintained that one of her greatest contributions to the field of religious education "was just being a capable educator, administrator, both in higher education, and teaching at the universities" (Hill, 1991, p. 149). Her commitment to modeling leadership was reflected in an opportunity to offer the opening prayer for the Massachusetts senate (1960). This was a groundbreaking experience as Olivia recalls: “it was the first time that those legislators had ever seen a woman, and a black woman, lead them in prayer" (Hill, 1991, p. 148). Her leadership abilities also afforded her the opportunity to teach, lecture, and consult with prominent universities and educational institutions such as Harvard University, Boston University, Andover Newton Theological School, and Tufts University. These were not only valuable experiences for Olivia, but they also provided opportunities for others to experience proficient black leadership.

Convinced that such leadership was essential for an effective Christian ministry, Olivia dedicated her life to the task of training quality leaders and especially religious educators. For she firmly believed that quality leaders would be more apt to provide excellent service. She focused her attention primarily on African American churches since they often emphasized preaching and worship over education. It was Olivia’s hope that highly trained religious educators would be instrumental in transforming religious education in African American churches by encouraging them to devote more time, energy, and resources into developing effective religious education programs (Smith & M. E. Moore, 1997).

Having courageously battled racism and sexism throughout her life, Olivia would be actively involved in the struggle against oppression. During the Civil Rights era, she would call upon the church and its leadership to address the realities of racism and sexism both within the church and the wider society. This conviction was exemplified when Olivia voiced her concerns in a public address in Boston regarding the use of the term “darkies” in reference to black people in a song sung by the audience. In her presentation, she went on to address issues of race, gender, education, economics, and social concerns. Needless to say, her message was not received well by many in the audience. The Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council later informed her that the Social Action Director was authorized to speak on race relations and social concerns. Therefore, it was not her responsibility as the Director of Religious Education to address such issues. She responded to him with clarity and conviction:

I am three things, Black, a Black educated woman, and a holder of a Columbia/Union Theological Doctorate, and none of these can I now change nor do I desire to. Therefore, you have the option of requesting my resignation, or experiencing the gift of double insights, coming from the Black Christian's experience and the best training in Higher Education (Stokes, 1985, p. 10; cf. Hill, 1991, p. 150).

Through her efforts to struggle against injustice and negative stereotypes, Olivia challenged religious educators to analyze and critique disparaging images, teaching practices, and social structures. She further challenged them to engage in honest dialogue, to address community concerns, and to develop programs that would allow them and their students to bring about transformation and change in their individual lives and communities.

Although she predated the contemporary womanist movement, it is no exaggeration to note that throughout her life and career, Olivia embodied the tenets and principles of womanist thought. While she did not identify herself as a womanist, she nevertheless embraced many concerns of contemporary womanist scholars. Olivia refused to have her faith or talents circumscribed by either racism or sexism during an era in which vocational options within the church and society were limited for women and especially for women of color. Her convictions, however, would be tested time and again. Shortly after completing her doctorate in 1952, she was invited by the placement office of Columbia Teachers College to fill a position requiring someone under the age of thirty-seven with a doctorate and thirteen years of professional experience in education. Since she fulfilled the criteria, she responded to the search; and she recalls:

The personnel director, in shock, took one look at me and said “and you are Negro! Don't worry, I'll get you a Fulbright fellowship, teaching abroad.” My response was a resounding “NO!” Columbia had educated me, as one who had received the highest evaluation in defense of my dissertation on leadership and no lower standard in any position did I seek (Stokes, 1985, p. 9).

This experience deepened her commitment to struggle for freedom and liberation not only for herself, but also for all who are oppressed. Drawing upon a reservoir of faith and wisdom that had been nurtured by her mother since her earliest years, she employed her person, lectures, and writings to challenge various forms of oppression both at home and abroad. Her primary concern, however, was to nurture and strengthen educational programs within the church, especially the African American church.

Drawing upon the rich heritage of African and African American traditions, Olivia explored and developed new models of religious education that were culturally sensitive, biblically based, and oriented towards transformation and social action. One such innovation was the Saturday Ethnic School, which would embody all of these qualities. Spurred by her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s, Olivia worked to transform every level of the educational process, including classroom orientation, teaching practices, policy making, negative images and stereotypes, teacher training, administrative procedures, curriculum resources, and textbooks. Her aim was to provide an educational environment that would affirm and celebrate the gifts and graces of all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, or social background.

An overview of Olivia’s teaching and scholarship reveals that her work was deeply influenced by her interests in theology, women’s studies, leadership development, and African and African American studies. Consequently, her scholarly/academic contribution can be viewed as multidisciplinary. It continues to provide valuable insights for scholars in a variety of contemporary disciplines.

Smith and M. E. Moore (1997) provide a helpful summary of Olivia’s overall contributions and influence in religious education. She challenges churches and faith-based organizations, first of all, to develop educational programs that empower “people as agents of change.” Second, she maintains that religious education must “promote dignity and human rights, respecting the personhood of all people.” Third, she encourages religious educators to evaluate programs on an ongoing basis to ensure their effectiveness. Fourth, she advocates “an action-reflection approach to education” to ensure “quality educational programs.” And finally, she urges religious educators to engage in an ongoing critique of teaching practices, textbooks, symbols, images, curriculum resources, and songs in an effort to dispel “negative images and stereotypes of people of color and women” (p. 114).

Accolades such as “gifted,” “articulate,” “creative,” “outstanding,” and “renowned,” fail to capture the essence of Olivia’s exceptional ministry. Nor does the laundry list of titles and positions that she held, such as educator, author, administrator, civic leader, and ordained minister, capture the vast contribution that Olivia made in the lives of a myriad of students, colleagues, and friends whom she touched over the years. Students in Africa and in the United States were blessed by scholarships that she personally provided or that were provided by organizations with which she was affiliated. Colleagues and friends, including Paul Nichols, Grant Shockley, Jonathan Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Samuel Proctor, and numerous church leaders, were impressed and inspired by her leadership, teaching, and scholarship. Since Olivia embraced an ecumenical, multicultural, and global vision, some have fondly remembered her as a “bridge” uniting people from all walks of life regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, culture, tradition, or country.

Works Cited

  • Hill, R. E. (Ed.). (1991). Black women oral history project (Vol. 9). Westport: Meckler.
  • Lundy, E. (1994, July 15). Olivia Stokes, noted civic leader, honored at black church education conference. American Baptist News Service.
  • Moore, A. J. (Interviewer). (1985). Oral history project: Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes (Videocassette No. 1). Claremont, CA: Claremont School of Theology.
  • Moore, M. E. (Interviewer). (1985). Oral history project: Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes (Videocassette No. 2). Claremont, CA: Claremont School of Theology.
  • Olivia Pearl Stokes. (1992). ABC People. Valley Forge, PA: The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board, American Baptist Churches, USA.
  • Pitaro, F. (1992). Olivia Pearl Stokes papers. Unpublished index, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
  • Smith, Y. Y., & Moore, M. E. (1997). Olivia Pearl Stokes: A living testimony of faith. In B. Keely (Ed.), Faith of our foremothers: Women changing religious education (pp. 100-120). Louisville: Westminster John/Knox Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (n.d.). Resume.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1974). Education in the black church: Design for change. Religious Education, 69 (4), 433-445.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1982). Black theology: A challenge to religious education. In N. Thompson (Ed.), Religious education and theology (pp. 71-99). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1985, April 20). Faith, freedom, and fulfillment. Paper presented at the conference Feminism, Spirituality and Wholeness: Naming Our Songs, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1996, September 25). Telephone interview with Yolanda Smith and Mary Elizabeth Moore.

Bibliography

Books and Monographs

  • Stokes, O. P. (1957). Sojourner truth: God’s fighter for freedom and justice. New York: New York Club, National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1971a). The beauty of being black: Folktales, poems and art from Africa. New York: Friendship Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1971). Emerging role of African women. New York: Friendship Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1971b). Why the spider lives in corners: African facts and fun. New York: Friendship Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1973). The educational role of black churches in the 70s and 80s [Monograph]. New roads to faith: Black perspectives in church education. Philadelphia: United Church Press, Joint Educational Development, 3-26.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1974). (Contributor). If teaching is your job. National Publishing Board of America.
  • Stokes, O. P., & Watson, S. (1981). Interview with Olivia Pearl Stokes: September 25, 1979. Cambridge, MA: Schlessinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Articles and Chapters in Books

  • Stokes, O. P. (1960). Contributions of the professional staff. International Journal of Religious Education, 37 (3), 20.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1963). Workshop. In K. B. Cully (Ed.), The Westminster dictionary of Christian education (pp. 720-721). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1964). Christian education and human relations. International Journal of Religious Education, 40 (9), 22-24.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1967a). Women of Africa and African descent [First in a series]. International Journal of Religious Education, 43 (11), 3, 31.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1967b). Women of Africa and African descent [Second in a series]. International Journal of Religious Education, 44 (2), 7, 30-31.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1967c). Women of Africa and African descent [Third in a series]. International Journal of Religious Education, 44 (4), 13.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1968). You have the power: Suggested resources for study and action in connection with the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. International Journal of Religious Education, 44 (8), 46-48.
  • Stokes, O. P. (Special Issue Ed.). (1969, November). Church Woman.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1970). The new Black dimension in our society. In N. Wright, Jr. (Ed.), What Black educators are saying (pp. 18-22). New York: Hawthorn Books.
  • Stokes, O. P. (Consulting Ed.). (1971, July-August). Black Christian education [Special issue]. Spectrum, International Journal of Religious Education, 47.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1971). The education of blacks in the household of faith. Spectrum, 47, 5-7, 50-51.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1972). Blacks, engagement, and action. Religious Education, 67 (1), 22-25.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1972). The black perspective: Christian education in today’s church. In R. R. Earl, Jr. (Ed.), To you who teach in the black church: Essays on Christian education in the black church (pp. 90-106). Nashville: National Baptist Publishing Board.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1972). Creativity in forced time. Spectrum, 48, 13.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1974). Education in the black church: Design for change. Religious Education, 69 (4), 433-445.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1978). Education in the black church: Design for change. In J. Westerhoff (Ed.), Who are we? The quest for a religious education (pp. 218-234). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1979). Black American status. Religious Education, 75 (5), 471.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1982). Black theology: A challenge to religious education. In N. Thompson (Ed.), Religious education and theology (pp. 71-99). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Selected Secondary Sources

  • Adams, J. H. (1971). Saturday ethnic school: A model. Spectrum, International Journal of Religious Education, 8-9, 32.
  • Hill, R. E. (Ed.). (1991). Black women oral history project (Vol. 9). Westport: Meckler.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1986). Women in religious education: Pioneers for women in professional ministry. In R. R. Ruether & R. S. Keller (Eds.), Women and religion in America volume 3: 1900-1968 (pp. 310-338). San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
  • Olivia Pearl Stokes joins the staff of D. E. D. (1966, December). International Journal of Religious Education.
  • Olivia Pearl Stokes. (1992). ABC people. Valley Forge, PA: The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board, American Baptist Churches, USA.
  • Smith, Y. Y., & Moore, M. E. (1997). Olivia Pearl Stokes: A living testimony of faith. In B. Keely (Ed.), Faith of our foremothers: Women changing religious education (pp. 100-120). Louisville: Westminster John/Knox Press.
  • Spaulding, H. F. (Compiler). (1953). Abstracts of doctoral dissertations in religious education 1951-1952. Religious Education, 48 (3), 171-197.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1996, September 25). Telephone interview with Yolanda Smith and Mary Elizabeth Moore. Williams, E. L. (1975). Biographical directory of Negro ministers. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company.

Sources About Olivia Pearl Stokes

  • Hill, R. E. (Ed.). (1991). Black women oral history project (Vol. 9). Westport: Meckler.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1986). Women in religious education: Pioneers for women in professional ministry. In R. R. Ruether & R. S. Keller (Eds.), Women and religion in America volume 3: 1900-1968 (pp. 310-338). San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
  • Lundy, E. (1994, July 15). Olivia Stokes, noted civic leader, honored at black church education conference. American Baptist News Service.
  • Obituary. (2002). New York: Abyssinian Baptist Church. Olivia Pearl Stokes joins the staff of D. E. D. (1966, December). International Journal of Religious Education.
  • Olivia Pearl Stokes. (1992). ABC People. Valley Forge, PA: The Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board, American Baptist Churches, USA.
  • Pitaro, F. (1992). Olivia Pearl Stokes papers. Unpublished index, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
  • Smith, Y. Y., & Moore, M. E. (1997). Olivia Pearl Stokes: A living testimony of faith. In B. Keely (Ed.), Faith of our foremothers: Women changing religious education (pp. 100-120). Louisville: Westminster John/Knox Press.
  • Spaulding, Helen F. (Compiler). (1953). Abstracts of doctoral dissertations in religious education 1951-1952. Religious Education, 48 (3), 171-197.
  • Stokes, O. P. (n.d.). Resume.
  • Williams, E. L. (1975). Biographical directory of Negro ministers. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company.

Unpublished Manuscripts

  • Stokes, O. P. (1952). An evaluation of the leadership training program offered by the Baptist Educational Center, Harlem, New York, with recommendations for its improvement. (Doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1952). Dissertation Abstracts International, 0054.
  • Stokes, O. P. (n.d.). A black hymnal. Unpublished manuscript, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
  • Stokes, O. P. (n.d.). Women of Africa. Unpublished manuscript, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
  • Stokes, O. P. (1985, April 20). Faith, freedom, and fulfillment. Paper presented at the conference Feminism, Spirituality and Wholeness: Naming Our Songs, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA.
  • Magazine/Newspaper Citations (From Black Studies Database: Kaiser Index to Black Resources 1948-1986): Appointed director of religious education for Massachusetts Council of Churches. (1953, March 14). New York Age, p. 3.
  • Christian women fulfilling their human potential in today’s society. (1970, March). The Baptist, p. 24-27.
  • Comprehensive guidance center at the Harlem YMCA (Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes, executive director). (1983, November 3-9). Harlem Weekly, p. 4, 12.
  • Comprehensive guidance center (Dr. Olivia Stokes, director). (1984, August 30-September 5). Harlem Weekly, p. 12.
  • Elected to religious education department of Council of Churches of Massachusetts; one of first. (1953, February 28). Afro-American [Baltimore], p. 21.
  • Reflections: Inter-cultural and inter-personal relations. (1969, January/February). The Baptist, p. 57.
  • Sojourner Truth awards given annually by National Association of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs—goes to Dollie Lowther Robinson of N.Y. Department of Labor and Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes of Massachusetts Council of Churches. (1957, June 6). Jet, p. 41.

Non-Print Sources

  • Moore, A. J. (Interviewer). (1985). Oral history project: Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes (Videocassette No. 1). Claremont, CA: Claremont School of Theology.
  • Moore, M. E. (Interviewer). (1985). Oral history project: Dr. Olivia Pearl Stokes (Videocassette No. 2). Claremont, CA: Claremont School of Theology.
  • Olivia Pearl Stokes Portrait Collection (1950-1979). Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture--Photographs.
  • Stokes, O. P., & Blake, E. C. (1994). School integration (Visual Material, Video recording, VHS).

Internet Resources and Websites that Mention Olivia Pearl Stokes

Olivia Pearl Stokes’s Papers

The New York Public Library–Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: This extensive collection includes approximately eleven boxes of materials that encompass various aspects of Olivia’s life and vocation from 1936-1991. The collection is divided into seven general categories: Correspondence, which includes general correspondence related to her personal, professional, and social activities; Writings, which includes formal and informal manuscripts from her published and unpublished works; Organizations, which includes materials related to her professional activities, civic involvement, and private affiliation; Programs, which chronicles her speaking engagements and participation in conferences, seminars, and workshops; Tours, which includes resources, materials, pictures, taped interviews, and artifacts from her trips to Africa and the Holy Land; Printed Matter, which includes articles, programs, and miscellaneous publications; and Miscellaneous Papers, which includes biographical information, honors and awards, special services, and sermons.


Excerpts from Publications

Hill, R. E. (Ed.). (1991). Black women oral history project (Vol. 9). Westport: Meckler (p. 143).

I was civic minded and curious as a person. One day I went down to Radio City, just as a citizen, to enjoy entertainment, and saw a minstrel show. I came back that evening to work … and wrote a letter to the manager of Radio City protesting white folks being made black—just out of my youth, curiosity and resentment. And I wrote on YWCA stationery out of my innocence. The next day, the manager was on the line of the YWCA asking what he could do to correct the race problem… That was my introduction to the impact of power—that the Y had in the world, and what I had done, and how I had unconsciously … used this instrument.

Stokes, O. P. (1974). Education in the black church: Design for change. Religious Education, 69 (4), 438.

Thus, education in the Black Church, with insights from Black theology, must become a part of that indispensable structure for survival and transformation that ameliorates those societal ills Christian faith is committed to remedy. Education in the Black Church must also give its members an opportunity for the self-understanding of Blackness, a sense of Black personhood as well as assistance in the development of Black community goals and programs. Likewise, education in the Black Church must aid Black Americans to function more efficiently in their roles as citizens, students, parents, neighbors, change agents, opinion-and decision-makers; and, through these respective roles, to improve the quality of their daily lives and that of their nation. Instead of expecting the world to come to the Church, Christian education in Black Churches must address the problems of the real world faced by Black people. For the Black Church, education must be concerned with living this life, to the fullest.

Stokes, O. P. (1982). Black theology: A challenge to religious education. In N. Thompson (Ed.), Religious education and theology (pp. 71-99). Birmingham AL: Religious Education Press.

Black theology affirms that it is relevant to the problems of a people oppressed in the American and African societies. Christian education has too often been theologically deprived and church schools have done little to help… Christian education within white churches has deprived their students (children, youth, and adults) of the right relationship with black people—black Christians as one’s fellow human beings. It has failed with the relevance of the oppressive and racist situation and the condition of the poor and minorities in light of the relevance of Christian truth (p. 94). How to teach black theology in Christian education needs to be discussed in an ecumenical, interracial, intercultural arena of Christian educators (p. 95). The gigantic task before black and white Christian educators is the translation of black theology and its underlying concepts and implied theoretical assumptions into goals, objectives, curricula designs, educational materials, and teaching methodologies (p. 97).

Stokes, O. P. (1985, April 20). Faith, freedom, and fulfillment. Paper presented at the conference Feminism, Spirituality and Wholeness: Naming Our Songs, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA (p. 3).

My first lesson in race relations came when I was about five years old on my family’s 300 acre farm in North Carolina. Mother told my brother and myself that we didn’t have to carry drinking water to the hired farm hands on our farm if they said nasty words to us or called us ugly names. Those farm hands were local white men working for the Stokes on nine family farms, most frequently called “The Stokes Place.” Mother meant if we were called “niggers.” That experience was my first conscious lesson in human dignity and racial difference.

Stokes, O. P. (1996, September 25). Telephone interview with Yolanda Smith and Mary Elizabeth Moore.

When I went to Massachusetts, I had to pray hard to be kind to people who were not kind to my people. I learned from my mother to be kind to everyone. Black and white didn't matter; what mattered was that you love people and help them serve God. I kept praying that God's will be done; the most important thing is to keep loving people. I have seen plenty of people change--black, white, Indian, African, and people everywhere.


Recommended Readings

Books

Stokes, O. P. (1971). The beauty of being black: Folktales, poems and art from Africa. New York: Friendship Press.

This book is designed to give youth foundational information about the continent of Africa through the lens of African art, folktales, and poetry. This collection of African artistic expressions features folktales that have been passed down for many generations; stories and poetry by African writers and teenagers; and pictures of African carvings, sculptures, toys, and fabric.

Stokes, O. P. (1971). Why the spider lives in corners: African facts and fun. New York: Friendship Press.

Highlighting five African countries: Ghana, Liberia, Congo, Uganda, and Zambia, this book introduces children to the countries’ history, economics, and leadership. The book is intended to provide a realistic picture of the people who live in these countries as well as to celebrate their music, art, and stories.

Stokes, O. P. (1972). Blacks, engagement, and action. Religious Education, 67 (1), 22-25.

In this article, Stokes examines the relationship between faith and action. She maintains “study and thought should emanate in action which brings about social change, from the perspective of the Christian faith” (p. 23). The role of African American religious educators, according to Stokes, is to “teach liberation” so that African Americans will better understand their experience of oppression in America and be better equipped to overcome this oppression. For Stokes, justice and liberation is the goal of Christian education that is grounded in black theology. It must strive to empower African Americans to become actively involved in the struggle towards transformation and social change. Stokes proposes an educational methodology that will facilitate this process.

Stokes, O. P. (1973). The educational role of black churches in the 70s and 80s [Monograph]. New roads to faith: Black perspectives in church education. Philadelphia: United Church Press, Joint Educational Development, 3-26.

This article provides a general overview of educational developments in the African American church during the 1970s and 1980s. In this discussion, Stokes highlights contemporary and historical perspectives of the black church in America; analyzes the educational mission of the black church; explores the traditional teaching/learning methodology in the black church; and examines an alternative educational approach that is grounded in the work of Paulo Freire. She goes on to delineate the significant work of the Black Christian Education Project, established by the National Council of Churches and designed to explore curriculum resources, educational methodology, and leadership training in the African American church. To implement its work, the project committee supports a Saturday Ethnic School as a viable model for African American Christian education. Stokes concludes this article by exploring the Saturday Ethnic School and providing organizational strategies for the establishment of such a school.

Stokes, O. P. (1974). Education in the black church: Design for change. Religious Education, 69 (4), 433-445.

Stokes explores two primary concerns in this article: (1) implications of black theology for African American Christian education and (2) educational guidelines for incorporating viable aspects of black theology into the ministry of the church. In light of the concerns raised by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Stokes identifies several contemporary trends in the African American experience that challenge the church to change in response to these developments. For Christian education to be relevant in the African American experience, it must be grounded in the tenants of black theology, emerge out of the unique experience of African American people, expose and critique oppressive structures, equip African Americans to live as contributing members of society, and empower them to strive for liberation and social change. The educational mission and methodology must reflect these concerns. To this end, Stokes further develops her ideas regarding a Saturday Ethnic School, providing a rationale and guidelines for its development.

Stokes, O. P. (1982). Black theology: A challenge to religious education. In N. Thompson (Ed.), Religious education and theology (pp. 71-99). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Black theology and its implications for African American Christian education are the primary concerns of this article. In her discussion, Stokes engages in an in-depth analysis of black theology, highlighting the definitions, primary themes, and major contributions to the Christian church and community. She goes on to explore the educational implications of liberation theology for religious education, with particular attention to teaching black theology in Christian education. For Stokes, “The challenge of Christian education is to find the new insights brought by black theology and using these with insights gained from social and educational psychology, the sociology of learning and cultural anthropology, enrich our teaching-learning process to end in the development of Christ-like persons” (p. 99).


Author Information

Yolanda Y. Smith

Yolanda Y. Smith has served as Associate Professor, Research Scholar, and Lecturer of Christian Education at Yale Divinity School. She submitted her forthcoming article, “Anne E. Streaty Wimberly” to the Encyclopedia of Christian Education. She also contributed the article “Forming Wisdom through Cultural Rootedness” to In Search of Wisdom: Faith Formation in the Black Church, edited by Anne E. Streaty Wimberly and Evelyn L. Parker and published by Abingdon Press. Additionally, she has worked collaboratively with Wimberly through REA:APPRRE and the Yale Youth Ministry Initiative Lecture Series.

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