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Bridging Faith and Education: The Historic Partnership Between Fordham University and Abyssinian Baptist Church


On Thursday, April 25, a groundbreaking partnership between Fordham and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem brought a group of leaders together for the latest event in the Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III Distinguished Lecture Series. The series is a bi-annual collaboration between the Church and Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education that began last December and serves as a forum for dialogues on education, faith, and social justice.

Honoring a Legacy

The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, whose legacy inspired the lecture series, was a pastor and leader whose efforts transcended the Abyssinian Baptist Church—particularly in the realms of higher education and civil activism. Dr. Butts served as president of SUNY College at Old Westbury for over two decades, and later as a distinguished visiting professor in the Fordham Graduate School of Education’s Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy Division. Known for championing educational equity and the liberal arts while also instilling a passion for social justice in his students, Dr. Butts also led the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s presence as a vital community hub, advocating for economic development and educational opportunities in Harlem and beyond. The Distinguished Lecture Series invites highly regarded thought leaders in the space and reflects Dr. Butts’ commitment to creating platforms for critical dialogue that bridge diverse communities. 

Fordham GSE graduate Raschaad Hoggard, Ph.D., who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dr. Butts’ leadership and activism, conceived of the lecture series. In partnership with Hoggard, Phillip A. Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor at Fordham GSEand a congregant at Abyssinian Church, has also been instrumental in bringing the lecture series to fruition. Smith’s research project, BE:FREE (Black Education: Faith, Race and Educational Equity), is funded by a substantialgrant through Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, part of which was used for the event. BE:FREE is a Black-led, race-conscious, and culturally sensitive pedagogical approach to teaching, leading, and learning. In practice, Smith explains, this means making space for all Fordham community members, regardless of identity, to engage in critical discussions and community building, both in Black spaces and under the stewardship of Black thought leaders.

A Confluence of Distinguished Scholars

The featured speakers at the April event, Eddie Glaude Jr., Ph.D., and Imani Perry, Ph.D., are scholars of considerable renown, both visiting from PrincetonUniversity. Glaude, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, is an accomplished author whose work spans African Americanstudies, religion, and philosophy. His writings and teachings delve deeply into the complexitiesof race and democracy in America, bringing an essential depth to the discussions at the lecture.

Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton, is celebrated for her work that traverses law, cultural studies, and literature–sometimes individually, and often at once. While the two panelists’ positions on progress and the state of things were in most ways symmetrical, Perry’s interdisciplinary approach to the discussion offered additional context around the black American experience and its evolution from the 1800s to now. 

The two engaged in a significant historical and legal discussion on the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. They explored its lasting impact on American education and civil rights, underscoring the pivotal role of the judiciary in shaping public policy and community life.

The event was moderated by Trymaine Lee, a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy Award-winning journalist and correspondent, who created an atmosphere that transcended academic discourse. This was, above all else, a vibrant community assembly that celebrated Harlem’s rich cultural heritage, enriched even further through performances by notable Harlem jazz musicians Riza Printup, Kevin Oliver Jr., Sean Conly, and Jerome Jennings.

Prior to the event, Glaude and Perry met with 30 high school juniors and seniors from Cardinal Hayes High School’s President’s Men program. The students had a chance to interact with the scholars in a discussion facilitated by Smith, and each participant received a free copy of Glaude’s book, We Are the Leaders We Have Been Looking For.


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