Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)

Prathia In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall.  She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray.  As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.

So who was Prathia Hall?

Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia.  Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.

Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies.  I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.

In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.

I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.

12 Responses to “Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)”

  1. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan Says:

    Dear Renita,
    Thank you for reminding us of the gifts, graces, and legacy of Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall. What a power house and dynamo. At the same time she was so gentle and gracious. I had no idea of her phenomenal history those times I did have an opportunity to share in her space. The last time I saw Prathia was at an SSBR meeting (Society for the Study of Black Religion), Claremont, CA.

    Thank you for reminding us of her life, and for sharing about your personal experiences of a powerful woman of God.

  2. Charisse R. Tucker Says:

    Thanks Dr. Weems for lifting Dr. Prathia Hall’s life and legacy before us on this day and thank You God for offering her life as a gift to us!

  3. TRe Says:

    Thank you for lifting the name of one of, if not the brightest light(s) for Baptist women in ministry in particular. So often many of us are asked why we stay and I think, if she could in 1962 when her very name was unspeakable in the majority of Baptist circles, learned or otherwise, then certainly we can in 2009 hold up the blood stained banner, “hold it up until we die.” I met her once when Dr Teresa Fry Brown brought her to our Women In Preaching class, my first semester at Candler. I remember her powerful oratory, her wisdom, her humility, her strength, and thinking, “this is a warrior women.” I left class and went to a quiet place on one of the lawns at Emory and just sang and cried and prayed to myself, “My mother was a soldier, she had her hand on the gospel plow, but one day she got old and couldn’t fight anymore, and so I’ll stand here and fight on anyhow.” –She seemed to carry generations with her; those past, present and future. –I decided not to spend all my time being angry at all those “great spiritual fathers” for hardly if ever speaking her name alongside theirs. I just decided to never get enough of God in her and the Word that pours forth even still.

  4. Ruby Sales Says:

    Thany you for remembering Prathia. I wish that you could send your memorial to the SNCC list. Thank you!

    Ruby Sales

  5. RevMamaAfrika Says:

    Sis. Rev. Weems, of all the historical and theological pearls you have shared on your blog, to me this is the most amazing, inspiring and surprising! I never knew Dr. MLK borrowed the phrase “I have a dream” from someone else, a sister at that. And after all these years, I’ve met and talked with many of Dr. MLK’s colleagues and members of SNCC (some that I know personally) and none ever mentioned Dr. Prathia Hall.

    Thanks again for reminding us that the critical study of the history of our people’s struggle is still worth studying; we may be “post-racial”, but clearly, we are not yet “post-gender.” :) :) :)

  6. Leslie Callahan Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I did not know Dr. Hall well, but I did have the privilege of hearing her preach several times and we did share some memorable conversations.

    I had the tape of her preaching at one of the Princeton Seminary Black Alumni conferences, and it was a ritual of mine to listen to that tape whenever I was driving a long distance. More than once while rejoicing at the word she delivered I discovered that my foot had turned to lead and that I was doing upwards of 90 miles per hour. By God’s grace I came to myself and slowed down without ever getting a ticket.

    Having recently become a pastor in Philadelphia, I have thought about her a lot in the last few months. Prathia Hall is unquestionably one of the pioneers on whose shoulders I stand. She was such a godly woman -incisive, prophetic, powerful, humble, warm, and gracious. The mention of her name renews my rejoicing.

  7. Mary St. Luke Says:

    Hello Rev. Weems:

    While you are taking a break from blogging be sure to check out Alice Walkers’s blog. It’s called just that–Alice Walker’s Blog. Also, check out her exhibit at Emory if it hasn’t left already. I think the exhibit closes in September. One more thing, do you know Helen Elaine Lee. Check out her book, The Serpent’s Gift. It highlight’s the idea of giving and receiving and the power of memory and storytelling.


    Mary St. Luke

  8. Marsha Brown Woodard Says:

    Thank you, it is hard to believe that it has been 9 years since Prathia’s death,it doesn’t seem that long,so thank you for remembering. I like so many others give thanks to God for her and for her faithfulness. As a Baptist minister she was living encouragement to those like myself who were coming behind her.

  9. Valerie Elverton Dixon Says:

    Thank you for this remembrance of Prathia. When I came to work at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, she was moving out as I was moving in. We had an opportunity to chat. She gave me wise counsel about the politics of the academy. I told her of my intention to keep my head down and concentrate on my writing. She seemed to know that the vocation of scholar and womanist and ethicist would not allow this. Her office became my office. The spirit of scholarship engaged in the world lingered in the air.

    When I left UTS to work at Andover Newton, I again had the privilege to speak with her and to drink from her wisdom. She reminded me of the importance of putting books by and about women on my syllabi. We spoke of the importance of women’s strength and of taking responsibility for our lives and for working with a will to make the world better. We celebrated her last birthday together in a Cambridge hospital.

    Whenever I have to make a hard decision, whenever I think about the importance of our scholarship and the necessity that it have an impact in the world, whenever I get tired of the madness, I think of Prathia’s courage and her wisdom. I take a deep breath and continue to work.

    Valerie Elverton Dixon

  10. Rev. Sys Says:

    Thank you Dr. Weems for honoring Rev. Dr.Prathia Hall. She is a woman that has influenced my life greatly.

    As one of her last advisees at Boston University, I felt blessed to have known her, but more than that grateful for every class and moments of brilliance she so willingly shared. She is a model for activism, servant leadership, and “academic midwifery” that many can only strive to attain. We must continue to speak her name and (re)member the lessons of her profound message and philosophy.

    Rev. Sys

  11. Aundreia Alexander Says:

    Dr. Weems, thank you so much for this reminder, it brought tears to my eyes. I met Dr. Hall twice and I attended her funeral. I think of her often.I read her dissertation and often go on line to find her sermons and interviews of her.I have been greatly influenced by her. I consider her a mother to my generation of preaching women especially those of us in the Baptist faith. I feel that she is an unsung shero that we need to be shouting about. Thanks again for your tribute.


  12. Elder Paris Lee Smith Says:

    As a seminarian student and having the great experiences of being in the midst of the gresat contributions of women in ministry, I find it a great blessing to live in today’s timeframe nestled in the crust of how great GOD has been to the women of faith and of color….we all have so much further to go!!!! Love your preaching/ teaching/ reaching ministry!

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