Who is Howard Thurman?

An Act of Kindness

Like many human stories, Howard Thurman’s story is one of resiliency, bravery, and hope. It began in Daytona Beach, Florida at the turn of the century on November 18, 1899—Thurman’s birthday. Though his family had little to no means, they loved him dearly, and throughout his life, Thurman (Hon.’67) would often attribute his success to his family’s courage and sacrifice. Young Howard was only fourteen years old when he left the comforts of home in pursuit of knowledge at boarding school (there was no high school for black children in Daytona Beach then). When he arrived at the train station to make his trek north to Jacksonville, he was shocked to learn that while he had enough money for the fare, he needed more to check his trunk. Thurman thought his adventure was doomed to end on that platform until an “anonymous stranger” approached him and asked him why he was crying. This stranger changed the trajectory of Thurman’s life, giving him the funds he needed to get to Jacksonville. Thurman never forgot that act of kindness, and dedicated his autobiography to the man on the platform who “restored his broken dreams.”

Education

After high school, Thurman attended both Morehouse College and Colgate Rochester Divinity School. By this time, the boy who couldn’t go to high school in his hometown had grown to be the valedictorian of his college classes. Following his studies, Thurman began his forays as a faculty member, first serving as the Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta, and then as the first dean of Andrew Rankin Chapel at Howard University. As an educator, Thurman took time to engage his students in deep conversation about their unrealized potential, prompting them with questions like, “Who are you, really?” and “Who do you want to be?”

Power of Non-Violent Direct Action

As Thurman’s profile grew in America, he and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, were asked to lead a Negro delegation to Southeast Asia in 1935. It was on this trip that he met Mohandas Gandhi and, in discussion with India’s emancipator, explored the power of non-violent direct action as a mechanism for social change. By the time the Civil Rights Movement took shape in the United States, Thurman was a nationally recognized human rights advocate, though he did not take to marching and mobilizing on the streets. He preferred to serve as a caretaker and spiritual advisor to those who did, among them Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Break Barriers of Divisiveness

Prior to coming to Boston University, Thurman’s life took an unexpected detour in the Bay Area. In 1944, Thurman cofounded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco—an interracial congregation intentionally designed to break through the barriers that separated people on the basis of race, color, creed, or national origin.

Thurman’s work in San Francisco attracted the eye of then-Boston University President Harold C. Case, who recruited Thurman to Massachusetts because of his unifying philosophy. Thurman accepted, moving to Boston in 1953 to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel. With this appointment, Thurman effectively became the first black dean of any predominately white institution in the United States. He came determined to test his ideas of common ground and community at a pluralistic community, and Boston University would serve as an ideal laboratory. In his twelve years at Boston University, Thurman engaged with national luminaries on campus like James Baldwin, Arthur Ashe, and, most notably, a doctoral student named Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59)

Shared Meaningful Experiences

Much like King, Thurman dedicated his life to the pursuit of a society that could acknowledge its differences yet elevate its common human ties. He visualized a world where racial, ethnic, or religious barriers did not serve as a roadblock to creating meaningful relationships. He called on us to do what makes us come alive, and it’s his collective story, philosophy, and vision that drives Boston University to create a community filled with openness, generosity, and fellowship. As current Dean of Marsh Chapel Robert A. Hill put it in a 2010 sermon, “He was 100 years ahead of his time, 50 years ago, so he is still 50 years ahead of you and me.” Boston University is committed to realizing Thurman’s vision, not 50 years from now, but starting today.

  • 1899

    Born in Daytona, Florida
  • 1920s

    Youth movement leader through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)
  • 1923

    Receives BA degree from Morehouse College
  • 1926

    Receives Bachelor of Divinity (DB) from Rochester Theological Seminary
  • 1926–1928

    Pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio
  • 1932–1944

    Professor of Christian Theology and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University
  • 1935

    Meets Mohandas Gandhi
  • 1935–1936

    Lead a “Negro Delegation of Friendship” to India, Burma, and Ceylon
  • 1944

    Helps establish the first racially integrated, intercultural, and interfaith church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco, California
  • 1953–1965

    Professor of Spiritual Resources and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University
  • 1965–1981

    Director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco, California