Celebrating Black History Month: Rev. Lewis McGee and the Sankofa Archive

Continuing our celebration of Black History Month, today I wanted to highlight Reverend Lewis McGee, one of the first African American Unitarian ministers.

Rev. McGee was a World War 2 veteran, a humanist, a free-thinker, and a Unitarian pioneer in Chicago. According to his biography at Meadville Lombard Theological School:

For more than 20 years, [McGee] had served small African Methodist Episcopal congregations in West Virginia and Ohio, all the while questioning the doctrines of his church. He was curious about the discoveries of science, and believed that human reason had an important role to play in faith. And he believed that human beings, not an all-powerful God, had to do the work of solving human problems, including bringing justice and equality to Black people. He had discovered a long time ago that he was humanist Unitarian. He had also discovered that Unitarian congregation, which were made up of mostly white people, would not accept the leadership of a Black minister.

Determined to make his own way, McGee graduated from MLTS and in 1947 founded a Unitarian humanist congregation in Chicago called the Free Religious Fellowship. Over 5 years he built the congregation up to a membership of over 100 people and then moved on to new challenges, serving various Unitarian and UU congregations over a distinguished career. Today the All Souls Free Religious Fellowship still exists as a majority African-American UU congregation in Chicago.

You can read more about Rev Lewis McGee here.

To read McGee’s own words, check out the Sankofa Archive at MLTS. “The Sankofa Special Collection serves as a repository of archival materials, biographies, worship resources, and images that tell the story of Unitarian Universalists of Color.” It has an extensive digital collection that can be accessed online.

You can check out Rev. McGee’s sermons, newsletters, bulletins and other words as scanned copies of the original documents at the archive.

Here, for example, if a classic expression of Unitarian humanism from Rev. McGee’s 1959 sermon “Living with One’s Self.”

It has been said that the achievements of the finest human beings are such as to rule out any justification of despair. We who are here this morning are not…[Albert] Schweitzers and are not to try to be other than ourselves. Be that as it may, there is place here and now for utter amazement as each of us looks at himself or herself*, at the changing yet constant self, at the experience of being a well-defined whole, a constellation of human powers, never entirely fixed yet dependable enough to be relied on...there is mystery and grandeur here, so that one might well say--’take off thy shoes, the ground is holy.’

Today there are African-American ministers and ministers of color serving UU congregations all around the country and at all levels of UU leadership. There is also much more progress to be made. We are grateful for the pioneering efforts of people like Rev. Lewis McGee and for their rich contributions to our movement’s history.

*Unitarian Universalism recognizes and celebrates the full spectrum of gender diversity.