Our Reunion Co-Founders

Rev. Casper I. Glenn
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A TRIBUTE TO MY GRANDFATHER, REV. CASPER I. GLENN

BY MYANI LAWSON (2021)

"My Black History Month" brings a tribute to one of my family's favorite and most revered seniors, my grandfather, Reverend Casper I. Glenn. The fact that my grandfather is 99 years old and in better health than somebody 15 - 20 years younger is amazing in itself and I could write about that in maybe a post I write later on about longevity and health (he never drank, smoke, and is the only person I know who eats bran cereal for breakfast), but for this post we focus on

his struggles and celebrations as an African-American.

My daughter Leila and I had a great conversation with him tonight. We called him on the phone and spoke with him for almost an hour as he gave us a rundown of his life from January 9, 1922 (his birth) until present day. His memory is astounding. You can ask him anything from like 1927 onward and he can tell you, with no problem. So here's his story.

He grew up in Winnsboro, South Carolina at a time when "life for African-Americans was difficult." He is one of ten children. He had 4 brothers and 5 sisters. His oldest brother passed away around the age of one because he got ill and the closest hospital was like 30 miles away. He said he first noticed the struggles of African-Americans, and the difference between how the races lived, when he was five years old.

 

This is when he started school. The school for African-Americans was 3 miles away from his house and only open 5 months out of the year. The school for white students was open 9 months out of the year. At

the age of 5, he had to walk 3 miles there and 3 miles back every day, on a dirt road to get to school, while the white children were taken to school on a bus.

Leila is six and in first grade and I can't imagine her having to walk 3 miles daily to get to school. He said the most difficult part of getting to school was when it

rained because the dirt road became mud and it was very difficult to walk. Talk about determination.

His school had four teachers, including the principal and only the principal was allowed to have more than a high school education. Until my grandfather was in

the third grade, he never had a teacher who had more than a 9th grade education and none of his teachers were ever trained as teachers.

He said Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears, put money into funding schools for African-Americans, so his school was a better building

than most of the schools for African-Americans in the area because those were mostly in churches and didn't have adequate facilities. He went to the Rosenwald

school until he was in 7th grade. That was the only school near for African-Americans in his area. The next nearest school for African-Americans was 10 miles away!

So in 1936, when he was in 8th grade, his parents sent him to live with his father's sister. She lived 4 miles away from the available school and so he stayed with her for 2 years and made it up through the 9th grade at that school. He still had to walk 4 miles to school every day. But he was very determined to receive an education, so he did it.

He said there were two routes to the school. One took 4 miles and had a bad road and one took 5 miles and had a better road. He said most of the time he took the bad road to save that extra mile, but he had to wear boots to walk to school in wet weather because the big trucks would come by and cut large trenches in the road, so kids would be all dirty by the time they got to the school, if they didn't wear boots. He said he always carried a pair of shoes with him on his walk, so he could change into a clean pair of shoes when he finally made it to school. #determination

Two years later an Episcopal church started a school about 6 miles from his home. The church had a van that would pick up African-American students, but

parents had to pay for the transportation, so my grandfather's parents got the money together to pay for him and his sister Mary to travel on the van and go to that school for the 10th grade. He said the school didn't have a lot of money to hire teachers and he didn't really learn a lot there, so when he was in 11th grade he traveled 100 MILES AWAY from his home to Cheraw, South Carolina to attend Coulter Academy.

 

The school cost $12.00 per month and his father could only afford $8.00 per month, so my grandfather went and spoke with the school's president and asked if he could get a work study job to pay the additional $8.00 per month. The president agreed and Casper was given the job of going to the to the local post office twice daily to collect mail for the school to pay the additional cost.

The 11th grade was considered the end of high school at the time, but Coulter also had a junior college, so he was able to stay at that school for three years and

graduate with an associate's degree before transferring to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

 

I too attended Lincoln University and I did so solely because my grandfather had gone to the school. I knew absolutely nothing about Lincoln. In fact, I was all set to go to Florida A & M. I had all of my gear and everything! LOL! But my dad said, "Why don't you go to Lincoln. Your grandfather went there. It's a nice small school and you'll get a lot of personal attention."

 

Wise decision. I LOVED Lincoln University just as much as my grandfather did. I met many of my lifelong friends there, including my husband and just really spent some of the absolute best days of my life so far, at that school. Hansberry! Freddie D! The Sub! Punk Rock! Chicken Night! What?! LU Family, you know what I'm talking about! When I get together with my grandfather it's fun to put on our Lincoln gear and sing our Alma Mater:

"Dear Lincoln, Dear Lincoln

To Thee we'll e'er be true.

The golden hours we spent beneath

The dear old Orange and Blue...

Hail, Hail Lincoln!"

He knows the whole song too. I'll have to record us singing it sometime. It's really cute. Anyway, after graduating from Lincoln my grandfather knew he wanted to enter the ministry. He had grown up in the church and had a strong affinity for it, but after attending Coulter he felt that he wanted to "be a part of something like this," because the school had done so much for him. So in 1944 he became the first in his family to graduate from college with honors) and went straight to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to attend Western Theological Seminary.

The following Christmas granddaddy went home to South Carolina to visit, but mostly to become engaged to the LOVE OF HIS LIFE, VERNILLA TURNAGE.

Perhaps it was love that pushed him on, but he managed to complete a three-year seminary course of study in just two! He was the youngest in his class and the only African-American student. Upon graduation, he immediately went to Baltimore (where my grandmother was able to join him) and started the Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church. He remained in Cherry Hill for 6 years, building up the congregation and helping the community through their "Wearing out soles to save souls" campaign.

He and his young family (my mom and aunt were born by this time) then moved to New Orleans, Louisiana for two years (my uncle Chip was born in New

Orleans).

He was charged with helping to grow a church among New Orleans' "African- American urban population." Once he finished that project, he knew that wanted

to do more in terms of Christian Counseling and Theological Education, so he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to obtain a Master's degree in theology. He stayed on an extra year to study at the medical division so he could learn more about counseling and then moved with his family to Tucson, Arizona to support growth of a new kind of church for America at the time - a "multi-racial church."

When he arrived, the congregation consisted of about 30 people - a Native American, a couple Whites, several African-American, and Latino members. After

8 years, the church membership grew to about 200 people. They've actually asked him to come back and give a talk this month about the experience of

growing a multi-racial church at a time of such racial segregation in America. He said it was an overall great experience and he enjoyed it very much.

In 1964, he and his family moved yet again. This time he was charged with working with another urban congregation and he became the pastor of Bel-vue

church in Los Angeles, CA. Bel-vue had quite a large congregation already when he arrived. There were 650 members when he got there and 900 members when

completed his time there 6 years later.

 

During his time at Bel-vue, the "Watts Riots" took place. He said the so-called riots didn't even really take place in Watts. He said they started about two blocks from where his church was located, in South Los Angeles, but a reporter thought it was Watts and "so it stuck." He said that he didn't consider the Watts Riots to be a riot at all. He said what happened was actually a REVOLT. He refers to the incident as "The Los Angeles Revolt." He said conditions in South Los Angeles were horrible at the time and finally people got fed up and revolted against these conditions.

 

He told us about the lack of employment opportunities, hospitals, playgrounds, and even decent grocery stores for citizens of that section of the city. He said that he remembers the only grocery store in town was downright horrible, with spoiled meat and rotten fruits and vegetables that stores in Bel Air and other wealthier areas of LA sent over to South Los Angeles. He recalled one Thanksgiving when he went to the store and purchased a turkey, because they were having guests. My grandmother went to cook the turkey, but when she went to open the package it only had one leg! He said somebody in Bel Air probably wanted the leg and thigh and after that they just wrapped that turkey back up and sent it over to the store in South LA.

Following the revolt, my grandfather's church gave him two months off to walk the streets and help the community. He said people were upset because they had no jobs and the nearest employment office was 9 miles away! Now if that wasn't bad enough, there were two different buses, owned by two different companies, that people had to take EACH WAY to get to said office, which meant that unemployed people had to pay two fares EACH WAY, just to go and look for a job! From his work during those two months, he was able to call attention to the state representatives that the employment office was too far away to service the people who were seeking employment.

The Bel-vue congregation also developed new ministries to respond to the needs of the people of the community. Playgrounds were developed, where children had just been playing in the street before and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital was also opened in the area. Ironically, both my mother and my Uncle Chip worked at that hospital years later. My grandfather is very well-spoken. Don't dangle a participle around him or he will get you! This gift allowed him to bring the conditions of the people to the mayor, city council, and governor to see that changes were made in the South Los Angeles area.

After serving at Bel-vue, he then moved to San Diego, California and became the Director of Parish Ministry. Based on his work in New Orleans and Los Angeles,

the Presbyterian church wanted him to work with other churches to help them best serve the needs of people in urban communities, especially low-income people.

You'd think he would have retired after all of this, but his story goes on. Next he became the Executive of the Presbytery (like a Bishop) for 9 years and his job

was to help the churches relate to the people. During his time in this position, he helped to develop a community center in the black and Latino community and worked to get churches to devote time to working in the community, raising money for scholarships, and tutoring children from elementary through high

school.

After that, he moved to Washington state and became the Synod Executive in the Presbyterian Church. His job focused on 7 presbyteries in Washington, Idaho,

and Alaska. My grandfather retired in 1987 (sort of), but before he did that, he moved again, this time to KENYA!!!! Yes, this man from a little town in South Carolina, who grew up in the segregated South and had to battle his way through school was now doing work for the church in the motherland! What?! So impressive! He developed a new church in Kenya during the three years he was living there. They asked him to come over and help because he had so much experience with church development by this time.

In 1987, my grandfather retired from the ministry, or so we thought. That retirement lasted 3 years. Then he was back in Kenya again from 1990 - 1992 to

work with partner churches in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia to help them find funding to build low-cost churches and schools. I actually had the opportunity to go to Kenya to visit him and my grandmother, but I decided to go to summer school instead. Yeah, I know, not bright. My sister was the smart one and she went with my mom and Auntie Joy. They had a great time. I always regret not going when my grandparents were living there, but it's definitely on my bucket list now.

So in 1992 at the age of 70, after 46 years in the ministry, my grandfather retired for real. He spent two years living in San Diego and then he and my grandmother moved to a retirement community in Duarte, California where's he's been living for the last 26 years. He just recently got his house renovated, which absolutely tickles me because it just shows you what his take on life is all about. He's not saying I'm 99 so I'm just going to live in whatever. He's like I'm 99!!!! I'm loving life!!!! I'm renovating my house!!!!

 

Awesome! These days he can be found doing various projects in his retirement community, such as canning fruit (he recently did 40 jars of apples), collecting recycling, and helping to prepare the annual

Black History Month presentation for the group. He still travels at least once a year, mostly to our family reunions, but two years ago he and his younger brother Lawrence went to Panama! Amazing!

So today we celebrate the struggles, the accomplishments, THE LIFE (well lived) of Reverend Casper I. Glenn. I really love this man more than words can express.

He is just an icon for me and I feel so incredibly blessed that he is a part of "my black history."

PS Granddad is now living with Uncle Chip in Harbor City, California.

Mary Jane Mitchell Willingham
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Mary Jane Mitchell Willingham was born May 12, 1922. She was the second oldest child and oldest daughter born to Allen Cicero Mitchell and Carrie Lou Glenn Mitchell. She was a teacher and guidance counselor for over 40 years.  

 

She spent most of her career in service of the youth of Richland County School District 1. She was a cum laude graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and received her degree in counseling from SC State College.

 

She married Frank Willingham, Jr.  From their union; two children were born, the late Dr. Francena Willingham and Elliott Willingham, Sr., both of whom followed in their mother's footsteps and became educators.

 

She was the first woman ordained an Elder of the Ladson Presbyterian Church (USA). She also served as head of Christian Education and numerous other roles within the Presbyterian Church.

 

In addition, she was a faithful member of Delta Sigma Theta and an officer and member in many civic organizations, including the Girl Scouts, Presbyterian Women, and the Washington Heights-Edgewood Community Organization.

 

Her lasting legacies include her faith in GOD, her love of family, and service. She transitioned from this earth at the age of 85 on February 22, 2008.

Click here for a brief video about Mary J. Mitchell Willingham.

Written by Elliott Willingham Jr., grandson of Mary J. Mitchell Willingham.

We will forever be indebted to the life, legacy, and vision of our founders. Thank you!