“They had never been in a situation like that, to have a confrontation. They became my fast friends.”
A lunchtime gathering of ministers from the Presbytery of Philadelphia had just been denied a table at the Union League. The white ministers of the group, affronted, asked for explanations. Their Black colleague, the Rev. Dr. Shelton Bishop Waters, pastor of First African Presbyterian Church, spoke up: “The problem is me.” The men walked across the street to a five and dime lunch counter and conducted their business.
Waters reflected on his life and ministry, including that particular encounter, in a recently-uncovered oral history at the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS).
Born in 1918 in Pittsburgh to Episcopalian parents, Waters grew up on the north side of the Allegheny. His family attended the Church of the Holy Cross in Homewood, some ten miles away. His parents named him after the priest at Holy Cross, Shelton Bishop.
The young Shelton joined Bidwell Presbyterian Church as a teenager, ”to get mixed up with the kids of the community, and the girls.” Recommended for ministry at a young age, he attended Lincoln University and Johnson C. Smith University — his transfer from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad to trains headed south was his first experience sitting in a segregated train car.
It was in Charlotte that Waters got in touch with the century-long legacy of Presbyterian educational work among African Americans in the South, meeting students from the “feeder schools,” Presbyterian-run elementary and secondary schools training young people for ministry, industrial and professional careers. It was his first taste of an all-Black presbytery, and an all-Black synod, and his first time studying under Black faculty.
Waters’ story, including his years leading First African Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of Philadelphia, is featured as part of PHS’s African American Leaders series. Each month the blog series, kicked off in January 2023, provides biographies of influential African American Presbyterians.
Like Waters, who also was an associate executive with the Synod of the Trinity, many of the leaders’ stories featured in the series demonstrate a commitment to the church despite ongoing discrimination and conflict.
From Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator and civil rights activist who served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the Rev. Dr. James H. Costen, moderator of the 195th “Reunion” General Assembly in Atlanta in 1983, each entry includes a free bulletin insert that churches can download and share. PHS encourages congregations to use these during their Black History Month celebrations.