The Rev. Joseph N. Green, Jr. (1926-2023)

All of us at the Roberson Project were deeply saddened to learn on Saturday that Father Joseph Green had died the day before in Norfolk, Virginia. He was 96 years old.

In 1965 Father Green and his first cousin William O’Neal became the first African Americans to receive a Sewanee degree. 

In September 2018, Dr. Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project, spent two days talking to Father Green and his wife, Evelyn, in their warm and inviting home in Norfolk.

The following is a transcription of remarks Dr. Register made at the dedication ceremony for the installation of a portrait of Father Joseph N. Green, Jr., T’65, at the School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, on September 15, 2020. Concern about the COVID pandemic prevented the Greens from attending the ceremony in person in Sewanee, but they were able to Zoom in for the occasion.

It is a particular honor and delight for me to have this opportunity to say a few words today on this occasion. Two Septembers ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Father Green and his wife Mrs. Evelyn Green at their home in Norfolk, Virginia, which they generously opened up to me for two days and then allowed me to pester them continuously with questions for the next two days. 

Father Joseph Green and Mrs. Evelyn Green on the front porch of
their Norfolk, Virginia, home in September 2018.

This event, for me at least, this meeting, this time I spent with the two of them, was one of the highlights of my professional  and academic career, and it had a profound and lasting effect, the stories they told and that I heard, that they shared with me and through me with others in the Sewanee community, changed my perspective on the history of this University, and on the reasons why I became involved with this project to begin with.

Let me say a few words to try to put Father Green’s career, before, during and after Sewanee, and he was here only for, I think, five summers out of the long course of his life. Let me try to put those in a little context here.

In 1965 there were two young African American men who were first cousins and who had grown up together, gone to school together, and I imagine even picked cotton together, on their family farms in the tiny and nearly all-Black town of Jenkinsville, South Carolina, 25 or so miles northwest of Columbia.

In 1965, these two young men, Bill O’Neal and Joe Green, both priests in the Episcopal Church, earned and received the Master of Sacred Theology Degree from the School of Theology of the University of the South. 

To my knowledge, neither of them attended a formal ceremony here on the Mountain that late spring, to receive those degrees, but they became on that day the first African Americans to graduate from this University. That’s 100 years after the end of the Civil War and the actual emancipation of nearly four million people held in the bonds of slavery, and that was 97 years after the first students matriculated at this University of and for the American South.

It is entirely fitting that we focus on that historic moment in honoring Father Green as we are today, but the right way to do it — the right way to honor that moment and those achievements 45 years ago — is not to isolate them, but to see their achievement in Sewanee in 1965 in the stream of two lives that were dedicated — long before they started at Sewanee and even longer after they finished at Sewanee — 

Two lives that were dedicated to what Father Green told me two years ago was “the only way to know the kingdom, right here, right now” — that way was “to fight for justice in this world.”

And let me add here that Father O’Neal died tragically in 1975. And I do not doubt that Sewanee would be honoring him today if he were still with us today.

When Fathers Green and O’Neal started their study at Sewanee in the summer of 1959, they already were veterans of the fight against Jim Crow. 

Ten years earlier, when Father Green was in his last year of college at St. Augustine’s, they had joined with other young Black men to fight for justice in the Episcopal Church. All of these men were determined to enter the Episcopal priesthood but all also refused to attend the church’s segregated seminary. Instead, they planned and executed a collective action to attend white seminaries outside the South. Not Sewanee or the Virginia seminary, but those outside the South. Father Green went to Philadelphia Divinity School, and Father O’Neal to General in New York City.

When they entered the summer graduate program at Sewanee in 1959, they knew they were not the first at Sewanee, they knew they were following in the footsteps of young men before them, John Moncrief in 1953 and Merrick Collier in 1954. These two young men had officially broken the color line here. However, neither had finished their studies: Moncrief was killed in an automobile accident in 1955, and Collier had elected to leave Sewanee instead of enduring the hostility he received in his one year of study here at the School of Theology.

Grace Episcopal Church in Norfolk, where Father Green was rector for many years.

Fathers Green and O’Neal had known their predecessors. John Moncrief in particular had been their teacher of sorts. So they consciously and deliberately took up the task of finishing the work, the fight for justice, right here and right now, at Sewanee. So there is no accident in any of this. This is a story about agency, about choice, about courage undergirded by faith. As Father Green told me two Septembers ago, the decision to come to Sewanee “was deliberate.” “We wanted to go [to Sewanee] and break down the barriers that we had broken down in other places. And we felt this was our obligation in a sense. The church cannot function as a separate and unequal institution, and the school [Sewanee] certainly cannot.”

No surprise, then, to learn that in the summer of 1961, that they were not only studying, but that Fathers Green and O’Neal joined three white men on the summer Theology faculty and tried — and failed — to be served at the restaurant of the segregated Sewanee Inn. 

Sewanee, Father Green told me, helped him “to know that I could deal with tough situations. Because dealing with the Jim Crow in the city of Norfolk that I faced when I came there was the same Jim Crow I was dealing with at Sewanee.” This was part of his education here. 

No surprise, either, that throughout the 1960s, Father Green, once he had received the calling to Grace Church in Norfolk, Virginia, expanded his fight for justice in the cities of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and Portsmouth. 

In the 1960s you could find the Civil Rights agitator, Father Green, on the streets of those cities, in the midst of the Poor People’s march in Norfolk, or the successful fight to desegregate the YMCA. 

Later you could find him as a member of the city’s school board, working to bring excellence in education, for once, to all of that city’s children.

For many years, twenty I think, you could find him elected to and serving on the Norfolk City Council, leading urban renewal projects to upgrade housing in the city’s Black neighborhoods, to enhance public transportation, to upgrade the facilities and opportunities at Norfolk State University and Tidewater Community College, to renovate the Black neighborhood’s theater into the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center. Travel to Norfolk as I did two Septembers ago, and you will find Father Green’s fingerprints all over that city.

And for the 30 years after he started in 1963, and even quite frequently since then, you could find Father Green in the pulpit, the rector of Grace Church, ministering to his parishioners. Within the four walls to be sure, but also reaching always beyond those walls to the world right here and right now.

There is a tendency people have to make abstractions into historical actors. You see this especially with loyal alums of any college like Sewanee to say that their college did this or that in the past. That the college made them who they are etc. But I think the emphasis there is in the wrong place. It’s the people at Sewanee — the students, the faculty, the others who worked or studied here — they are the ones who did things in the past. They are the ones who shaped this place where we live, work, or study today. 

This observation applies to Fathers Joseph Green and William O’Neal. I think we need to remember that it was their choices, their determination and resolve, and their religious faith that saw them through five difficult summers of study in Sewanee to get their degrees and bring change and justice to Sewanee. 

And then, enlightened and toughened by those summers here, they continued in the stream of their lives, picking up where they had never left off, fighting for justice and healing in the world. And for this, the whole of the Sewanee community can be thankful.

Thank you.

A short obituary for Father Green can be found here.

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