The Rev. Joseph N. Green Jr., T’65, H’10, has the distinction of having earned a master of sacred theology (S.T.М.) from the School of Theology in 1965. In doing so, he made history as one of the first of two African American students to earn a degree from the University of the South. His cousin, William (Bill) Fletcher O’Neal also graduated in 1965 with an S.T.M.
As the University launched a year-long celebration of “55 Years of Black Alumni” at the beginning of the academic year, Green’s life-long accomplishments stand as one of the hallmarks of the School of Theology’s history. “The School of Theology classes of T’17 and T’19 commissioned a portrait of Green to hang in the School's foyer because of his role in making Sewanee more diverse and welcoming and in appreciation for all he has accomplished during his ministry,” explained Melissa Kean, T’19, who spearheaded the commissioning. The desire to honor Green came from the students in the School’s Diversity and Reconciliation committee and the University’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
Green grew up under the influence of The Episcopal Church, mainly due to his mother. As Green reflects, “I believed that The Episcopal Church was going to be the church of the future. Loved it, loved the Prayer Book, and momma had prayer every night. She was the religious leader for our community and her influence on me was great and still is.”
Growing up in a family with 10 siblings, education for the children was a top priority for Green’s parents while managing the family farm. “They made sure we studied and went to class when others were pulling out and going to work early,” said Green. “They wouldn’t let my brothers and sisters do that.” His early education took place at St. Barnabas school in Jenkinsville, South Carolina, under the tutelage of a young Black priest, Father Whittington.
Green earned a bachelor of arts from St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, before earning his master of divinity at Philadelphia Divinity School in preparation for his ordination to Holy Orders. How he chose to attend seminary in Philadelphia is an interesting story. “There were 10 of us at Saint Augustine’s that were going into the priesthood. We were at that juncture where we wanted to show the Church that we could go to a white seminary and we could excel, not excel, but we could do as well as the white students. All of us decided to go to a white seminary.”
In October 1952, all but one member of the School of Theology faculty, the head of the University’s religion department, and the University chaplain resigned in protest of the Board’s decision to not allow Black students. In 1953, bishops threatened to pull their students out of the School of Theology if it was not integrated. The news made the papers and The Living Church magazine. “Everybody knew about it, and everybody was talking about it,” said Green. “It was the story of our Church. We wanted to break down the barriers that we had broken down in other places. The Church cannot function as a separate and unequal institution and the School certainly cannot.” Their friend, the Rev. John Moncrief, had been the first African American to enroll in the School of Theology in 1953. He was pursuing the S.T. M. when he was killed in an automobile accident in 1955. Inspired by him, Green and O’Neal decided to apply for their master in sacred theology degree,
Asked if he had any prior knowledge of Sewanee, Green deferred. “I knew it was a seminary and I knew where it was. I knew we had to be brave but I did not know I would face the kind of Jim Crow situation at Sewanee that was there.” Jim Crow was very much alive at Sewanee, and Green was shocked to see it. “The Black people had their place. White people had their place. And they just didn’t cross over.”
Green recalls an example of that Jim Crow culture. He and O’Neal had gone to the University’s swimming pool to swim. Shortly after entering the pool, however, all of the other swimmers got out and left. The next day, the pool at the center closed for repairs and remained closed for the summer.
After his ordination, he served congregations in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina and as chaplain at St. Augustine’s College. In 1963, he was called to Grace Episcopal Church in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served as rector for 30 years.
Green's community service is legendary. Asked about his call to ministry, Green had this to say. “I learned what people need. I also learned what I needed. I learned that a healing ministry works both ways and boy did I see it work miracles!”
Green served on the Norfolk School Board before spending 20 years on the Norfolk City Council, continuing to stress the causes of civil rights for African Americans and fair play for all as he worked for the betterment of Norfolk. His efforts to promote affordable and accessible housing in Norfolk led to new housing in many sections of the city. Highlights of his tenure included the promotion of mass transit, inclusion of a public housing tenant on the Housing Commission, and efforts to establish a downtown campus of Tidewater Community College. Reflecting his achievements, the administration building of Tidewater Community College is named for Green, and the city council named a street after him. His community service also includes service on the Norfolk School Board.
Green has received numerous honorary awards from several institutions including the University of the South, Doctor of Canon Law, 2010; the School of Theology, The Dubose Award for Service, 2009; Old Dominion University, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award, 1990; St. Augustine’s College, Doctor of Civil Law, 1985; and Virginia Theological Seminary, Doctor of Divinity, 1988.
Looking back, Green reflects on how his decision to go to Sewanee when he did, and if it made an impact on the culture. He recalls that even though he was shut out of many of the facilities while there—restaurants, the Fowler Center, and the theater—things were beginning to change quickly. “Bill and I were very pleased with what we had helped the seminary do and helped the community do.”