Monday, June 20, 2016

Dr. Albert Keister and the Debate over Evolution

Dr. Albert S. Keister arrived at the North Carolina College for Women (now UNCG) in 1924, halfway through completing his PhD in economics at the University of Chicago (a degree he completed in 1927). Upon his hiring, he taught courses in sociology and political science, as the school had no formal economics department. He also taught a number of extension classes around the state of North Carolina. It was in one of those extension classes in 1925 that Keister became embroiled in the debate over evolution that was sweeping the country.

Keister, from the 1945 Pine Needles yearbook
On January 25, 1925 in Charlotte, Keister taught an extension class in sociology. At one point during the class, according to a letter written by Keister in 1963 after being asked about the incident, a student asked Keister "what a belief in evolution did to one who believed in the Bible?" Keister responded that accepting evolution "forced the person to hold that account of creation in the Book of Genesis was not literally true but only the attempt of a people to explain a mystery of life in a pre-scientific age, hence a form of mythology." He also expressed that he "admired a teacher who was brave enough to speak plainly on both sides of the question."

In a January 19, 1925, NCCW vice president Walter Clinton Jackson wrote a report on his understanding of the "incident" for president Julius Foust. In it, he highlights another point of controversy related to Keister's class. In addition to being asked about evolution, Keister was asked his opinion on "the Negro." He elicited further disdain from members of his class by stating that 'he would have considered it an honor to have had Booker Washington dine with his family in his home." This statement is rarely mentioned in contemporary newspaper accounts about Keister.

But there were many editorials and articles written about Keister and his statements on evolution. President Foust received letters from citizens throughout North Carolina, some supporting Keister and others demanding for his immediate dismissal. On February 6, 1925, the Parent-Teachers' Association of Laurinburg (NC) issued a formal petition calling for Keister's firing. They also called for the immediate halt to "teaching that evolutionary hypothesis or any other unproven theory is a settled fact, and especially using such unproven theories as a criterion to establish the correctness or falsity of the truths of the Scripture and thus undermine the faith of our girls, yet too immature to properly think through these matters themselves." The Presbyterian Ministers' Association of Charlotte followed suit on February 16, charging Keister with "having made attack upon foundation principles of the security of our social and moral welfare and highly repugnant to the Anglo-Saxon people that compose this Commonwealth."

The beginning of one of the editorials calling for Keister's firing. This is from
the January 14, 1925, issue of the Charlotte Observer. This editorial was
written by Al Fairbrother of Greensboro. 
The uproar continued and on March 10, Keister broke his silence with an official statement sent to Foust. Keister wrote, "it has come to my attention that various person throughout the state charge me with being an atheist, an infidel, and an unbeliever in the Bible." He asked Foust to "interview any of my students regarding the spirit of my instruction," stating that he leads his students (as well as his own children) "to think what Jesus' way of life points to." He concluded, "if I were an atheist and a destroyer of the faith, is it likely that I would be serving as a teacher for the Men's Bible Class of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant?"

Ultimately, Foust worked behind the scenes to convince the College's Board of Directors that, in spite of the challenges, Keister should remain. In an April 1 letter to Judge J.D. Murphy of Asheville, Foust wrote that he considered Keister "one of the best men fundamentally whom I have ever met." He added, "I know the phrase 'academic freedom' has been much overworked, but the board of directors might discharge almost every member of the faculty and attempt to reorganize the college to meet what some people in the state are demanding ... The only solution to this whole matter from the standpoint of some people is to abolish all colleges and schools in North Carolina and have an educated clergy who would do all the thinking for the people. We can not build at this place a great college based on fear, nor can we grow a great democracy in North Carolina based on timidity." Ultimately, the Board chose simply not to act on the calls for Keister's removal.

For his part, Keister later went on to serve on the Greensboro City Council from 1932 to 1938. During World War II, he served on the National Labor Relations Board. He also was a director of the Gate City Savings and Loan Association and the North Carolina National Band. he served as president of the Southern Economics Association. And, throughout his life, he remained an active member of the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, where he headed their Campus Christian Life Committee following his retirement from the Woman's College in 1956. This Committee was responsible for building the Presbyterian Student Center on the WC campus. Keister died in 1974 at the age of 86 after a battle with Parkinson's Disease.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Keister was my next door neighbor on College Park Drive. My parents Dr. and Mrs J. Fred Merritt lived next door to him. He was a super neighbor and always very kind to me, even when I accidentally backed into the side of his brand new Chevrolet back in 1957.
    John F. Merritt