DALLAS -- The Ku Klux Klan’s power in Dallas was waning by 1927, but it was still a dangerous time to be black in North Texas.
The city refused to hire any black police officers, and a segregation ordinance officially reinforced the customary racial separation of the times.
The Rev. L.G. Foster, a black preacher, was walking down Elm Street in downtown Dallas one day and stopped to listen to some white street preachers. Greatly impressed with their oratory, he asked them to teach him and his fellow black preachers the word of God.
The white preachers were students at Evangelical Theological College, which later became Dallas Theological Seminary. At the time, blacks were not allowed to attend the seminary. But the white preachers, filled with missionary zeal, accepted the challenge.
So began the Southern Bible Institute, a place where black Christians could study the Bible, learn to preach and become better stewards of their churches.
Now, 84 years later, the institute is struggling to remain relevant in the 21st century.
Dr. Martin Hawkins, the institute’s president, is guiding programs to recruit more Hispanic students, upgrade faculty, create more course offerings and eventually improve the value of its diplomas in the college marketplace.
At the same time, Hawkins said, it’s important for the institute to honor its history and the men who labored to improve Christian education for blacks in Dallas at a time when any endeavor that mixed the races was considered risky business.
"The men who took on this task were content to say, ‘We’ll do the best we can under a bad situation.’ Despite the rigorous segregation, they wanted to train these black men to be preachers," Hawkins said.
Among the white seminarians was Edmond H. Ironside, son of noted evangelist Harry A. Ironside. At first, they called it the Dallas Colored Bible Institute. Its goal was to serve "the Negro of the South."
Dr. Gordon R. Mumford, who is white, served as Southern Bible Institute’s president from 1971 to 2005. He compiled a history of the college’s early days.
Initially, the problem was finding a place to hold classes, according to Mumford.
Edmond Ironside ran a small bookstore in the Magnolia Building in downtown Dallas. It became the first meeting place, but not for long.
"Then, after that, to avoid problems of blacks in the building after hours, the group moved to L.G. Foster’s home on Trunk Street in the black section of the city," Mumford wrote.
"Because of night classes, and with much reading to do, and Rev. Foster having no electricity, only a kerosene lantern, they moved."
The Southern Bible Institute sits at the corner of Camp Wisdom and Hampton roads in Oak Cliff. It’s a commuter school with no dormitories.
Just beyond its modest 1960s-era classroom building, a row of churches stretches to the south on Hampton: Celestial Haven Baptist Church, Light of the World Church of Christ, More Than Conquerors Church, and Abundant Life Church of God in Christ.
Black churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area provide most of the institute’s 250 students. They may be pastors seeking higher education or deacons and elders who want to become more effective church leaders. Or they may just want more knowledge about the Bible.
"SBI has meant so much to me and so much to the community," said the Rev. Charles Reed, 84, who is retired from the ministry.
Reed attended the institute from 1957 to 1961. In 1966, he became the first black teacher at the school. Historically, the institute’s entire faculty and administration had been white, going back to the days when Ironside and his white colleagues at Dallas Theological Seminary provided the energy and support that created the school.
"I was really surprised and pleased when they asked me to teach," Reed said. "Today, SBI is colorblind."
The board of directors, faculty and staff is a mixture of black, white and Hispanic.
Juan Alberto Alejo, a doctoral candidate at Dallas Theological Seminary, has become the institute’s director of Hispanic programs. Since last summer, he has been reaching out to Hispanic students.
"Our goal is to teach classes in Spanish," he said. "We have so many Hispanics coming here, and we need to reach out to them and teach the word of God."
Alejo is emblematic of the Christian teacher and preacher upon whom the institute depends for its existence.
"I would like to eventually be a pastor full time," he said.
"Right now, God has me here."
Martin Hawkins became the institute’s fourth president—and its first black president—in 2005. He spent 29 years as an assistant pastor at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, a black megachurch just a few blocks from the institute on Camp Wisdom Road.
Hawkins, a New Jersey native, grew up the youngest of 16 children. His father was a garbage hauler.
"I watched my father walk to work because we didn’t even have a car," he recalled.
After graduation from high school in 1959, Hawkins worked in a pipe foundry. In the 1960s, he found his first true calling as a caseworker in an anti-poverty program. But he soon found his second true calling—the one that would last.
Hawkins arrived in Dallas in 1975 to enroll in a summer school program at Dallas Theological Seminary.
"I grew up in the Baptist church and I see myself as upholding the Bible Church movement," he said.
Eventually, he met Tony Evans, founder of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, and helped build that church from the ground up in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
"I just believed the Lord called me to work with Dr. Evans," Hawkins said.
Today, the Southern Bible Institute is seeking accreditation through the Association for Biblical Higher Education, which Hawkins calls "the gold standard" of credentials for a Bible college.
And that means the institute must attract more qualified professors, offer a wider range of courses and develop a more effective fundraising apparatus.
Students need to know that their degree is valuable, Hawkins said, and accreditation will bring enhanced value.
"God has called me to the issue of not only producing good teachers and preachers but producing qualified people who can stand up against anybody," he said.
In 1927, a fundraising brochure illuminated Edmond Ironside’s quest to educate black preachers in Dallas. Ironside would become the institute’s first president. His tenure lasted until 1942.
"A lot of white Christians feel this is a call from God, and are ready to help in such an undertaking," the brochure said.
The institute is no longer a missionary project based solely on whites ministering to blacks. Hawkins and many other black and Hispanic Christians have shouldered the burden to keep the school viable and maintain it as a resource for hundreds of churches in North Texas.
"This is a story that remains largely untold," Hawkins said.