Known as the “mother of Black Lutheranism in central Alabama” and a strong advocate of education for rural children, Rosa Young (1890-1971) was instrumental in founding and promoting the development of Lutheran schools and congregations in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Rosa J. Young Rosa Jinsey Young was born on May 14, 1890, in the rural community of Rosebud in Wilcox County. She was the fourth of 10 children born to Grant Young, who was an African American Episcopal minister and his wife, Nancy. According to her autobiography, Light in the Dark Belt, Young always had a desire to learn and consequently to teach. These talents were recognized and encouraged by her parents and others. When she completed her basic education (up to the sixth grade) her parents sent her to Payne University, an African Methodist Episcopal School in Selma that had opened its doors to students a few years earlier. Over the course of the next six years, Young won numerous scholastic awards, became editor of the school newspaper, and was valedictorian of her graduating class in 1909. The theme of service dominated her farewell address to the faculty, students, and parents, but nervousness forced her to give her speech seated.
Rosebud Literary and Industrial School Young received her teaching certificate and passed her state exams within a few weeks after graduation. She then taught at various schools for African American children across Alabama. The practice of traveling among these schools to teach was common at the time because of a discriminatory state law that required funding to be withdrawn if school was not held because of a lack of teachers. There was a shortage of competent black teachers. Young’s interest in promoting education and religious instruction among rural children led her back to Rosebud in 1912. She was encouraged and determined to establish a private school, receiving support from both blacks and whites in the immediate area. Young supervised the construction and found supplies and staff members for her school, the Rosebud Literary and Industrial School, which opened in October of the same year. The school was well received and numbered 115 students in its first year and 215 in its second.
In 1914, the Mexican boll weevil, a destructive pest of cotton, reached Wilcox County and devastated the region’s economy, which was based primarily on cotton production. Many parents became unemployed and thus had little or no income for tuition expenses, and the school struggled to survive with fewer students and a smaller staff. Young reached out to many donors for private funding sources for her school, but was unsuccessful. In fall 1915, with the school on the brink of closure, she wrote a letter to Booker T. Washington, influential founder of Tuskegee Institute, seeking his help. Washington’s personal secretary, Emmett Scott, replied that Tuskegee was unable to offer financial support, but he directed her to contact the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. This predominantly German Church had a history of founding Black Lutheran missions in the rural South through the development of parochial schools in Louisiana in the 1880s and North Carolina in the 1890s.
Nils J. Bakke Young wrote to church leaders in October 1915, and they responded with a request for more information about her situation and the possibility of establishing a mission in Rosebud. Young in turn responded with assurances of support and cooperation, and the Synodical Conference Mission Board (a segregated entity of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod with ministry to African Americans and other non-whites) of the Missouri Synod sent veteran missionary pastor Rev. Nils J. Baake in January 1916 to survey the situation. He reported favorably to the board and was assigned to serve as superintendent of the school and oversee its development. Young turned the management and property of the school over to the Lutherans and stayed on as a teacher and advisor. The Lutheran Church provided money, materials, and other forms of help to maintain the quality of the school. Baake added Lutheran-based religious instruction to the school’s curriculum and held instructional and informational meetings with parents of the school children and others toward the development of a Lutheran Church in the area. This work culminated on Palm Sunday in 1916, when 58 people were baptized and 70 were confirmed (with Young being among them). These people became the nucleus of the first black Lutheran congregation and school in Wilcox County and the Black Belt and became known as Christ Lutheran.
Midway School and Church The success of this school prompted other leaders and interested persons to inquire about establishing churches and schools in their communities. Young and Baake visited these sites and founded schools that became centers of Lutheran congregations in Buena Vista, Tilden, Tinela, and Midway (all in Wilcox County) in 1916 and Ingomar (in Dallas County) in 1919. Baake left Alabama in 1920 for health reasons. Rosa Young continued to serve as a teacher, missionary, lecturer, and fundraiser for the conference. She travelled to tell other Lutherans about the African American mission in Alabama. She was a faculty member of Alabama Lutheran Academy and College from 1946 to 1961, when poor health limited her activities. By that time the school was named Concordia College, founded with her influence in 1922 to educate and train future black Lutheran pastors and teachers for the Alabama mission and elsewhere. In 1930 Young first published her autobiography, which was reprinted as a paperback in 1950.
The Synodical Conference churches in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana dissolved and integrated into the formerly all white Southern District of the Synod in the civil rights era of the mid-1960s. Young was honored by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for her dedicated service with an honorary doctorate (LL.D.) from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1961. She died on June 30, 1971, and was buried near Christ Lutheran Church in Rosebud, in accordance with her final wishes. Concordia College operated until 2018, when it closed after graduating its final class.
Young, Rosa. Light in the Dark Belt. Saint Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1950.