December 12, 2012

The Rev. James V. Lyles and four fellow students in Perkins School of Theology made history in 1955 as the first African Americans to graduate from SMU.

The Rev. James V. Lyles in May 2005 at the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking graduation from Perkins School of Theology.

The events leading up to the milestone were detailed in “Breaking the Color Bar,” published in the spring issue of Legacies, A Historical Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, a joint publication of the Dallas Historical Society, Dallas Heritage Village at Old City Park, the Old Red Foundation and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. In writing the article, William R. Simon conducted research at Perkins’ Bridwell Library, where he found a journal article written in 1956 by Merrimon Cuninggim, dean of Perkins (1951-60) and an architect of the desegregation strategy.

“The journal article related in some specificity about how Perkins broke the color bar at SMU,” Simon explains. “It was written from the perspective of an administrator, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the event from the perspectives of SMU alumni, including Rev. James Lyles, who actually lived the experience most directly.”

Lyles, now retired from the ministry and working on his memoir, was an undergraduate at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, when the Perkins dean came to speak in spring 1952. At the time, Cuninggim was conducting a national search for African-American candidates, and Philander Smith’s president recommended Lyles.

The first African Americans to graduate from SMU: (from left) James Arthur Hawkins, John Wesley Elliott, Negail Rudolph Riley, Allen Cecil Williams and James Vernon Lyles.

The son of a minister who made his living as a sharecropper, Lyles grew up in rural Arkansas. “My father always encouraged me to study and pursue an education,” he says. “Early on, I decided to be a minister.”

Lyles recalls “a positive attitude, particularly in the seminary, when we arrived” in fall 1952. Having grown up in rigidly segregated communities, Lyles says that coming to SMU “opened up the world to me.”

“The faculty and students went out of their way to find out who we were, where we had come from, and what they could do to make the transition from segregated communities and schools easier for us as we entered into a community that was different and strange and something that we were not accustomed to,” he says.

Perkins equipped him for a changing world, Lyles says. “I received an excellent education that prepared me for difficult leadership positions with national and international agencies of The United Methodist Church and the U.S. military.”

Lyles, who now resides in Rowland Heights, California, was a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force and held various positions with The United Methodist Church before retiring in 1998. He served on the staffs of the former General Board of Evangelism, Education and Cultivation and the World Division of the General Board of Global Ministries and was Area Secretary for Africa. He also held several local pastorates. From 1998 to 2004, he was a hospital chaplain in California.

He keeps in touch with fellow pioneering classmate Cecil Williams, minister and leader of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. The church has earned accolades for developing numerous programs to help San Francisco’s underprivileged to break the cycle of poverty. Williams was honored in 2009 with SMU’s Distinguished Alumni Award. The other African-American students – James Arthur Hawkins, John Wesley Elliott and Negail Rudolph Riley – are deceased.

Lyles last returned to SMU in May 2005 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking graduation. “Everything was possible because of SMU’s efforts,” he says. “Dean Cuninggim and President Umphrey Lee, followed by President Willis Tate, intended that the experiment succeed, and they did everything they could to make it a success because they thought it was the right thing to do. I’ll always be grateful that they made sure we got a first-rate theological education.”