*Based on an Interview with the Rev. Richard Gibson
By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture
Twenty-five years ago, Richard Gibson served as the president of the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Today, as we approach the end of the 50th anniversary year for the Auxiliary, the Rev. Richard Gibson is pastor of Cleveland’s Elizabeth Baptist Church. During a telephone interview on October 7, 2021, our most recent for the A. Grace Lee Mims Arts and Culture Oral History Project, Pastor Gibson discussed the importance of history, the current debates regarding the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), his role as a religious leader, and his responsibility as a community leader. The following excerpt from the transcript was edited for length and clarity. –RNW
I went to the Cleveland Public Schools and then went to Yale University for my undergraduate degree. My first job out of college was as a history teacher, and I taught history to high school juniors and seniors. I’m passionate about history, and I certainly appreciate the value of history –especially for our people during this time.
When I came back to Cleveland, I earned my law degree and my MBA from Case Western Reserve University. I was at Liberty Hill Baptist Church, and that is where I entered the ministry. I never intended to pastor, but I began pastoring at Elizabeth Baptist Church 18 years ago. Actually, this month [October 2021] I will celebrate my 18th anniversary as pastor.
It is critical that we know our history. I believe that history is foundational for us in that we can build upon it, and it keeps all of us accountable. You talked about Louis Stokes, for example. I served on a board with him before he transitioned. He chaired the board, actually, and our work focused on getting more youth of color into medical school. It was a fascinating approach, and he did things that were important not just in his public position in Congress. He was working on areas that would have an impact for generations.
There is a discussion that is taking place now about history and what should be taught in the classroom. One of the groups that is fighting hard and is really demonizing Critical Race Theory (CRT) is actually part of the Christian community. I’ve had to take strong positions with some of my colleagues who have looked at the teaching of CRT as a divisive issue, rather than looking at it as an issue that could be inclusive and looking at history broadly. So, history in this moment is really critical.
The position that I hold creates responsibilities for me. If I am sitting in a position, I should be doing all that I can do to help our people advance in their relationships with God and their relationships with our neighbors. We can’t really advance in our relationships with their neighbors if we don’t have that relationship with God—and we also need to own property, own businesses, and have opportunities to participate economically.
In this position, I have to push in all of those areas. Some might view that as making history, but I view it as my calling, my responsibility.