By Judith Scherr
Special to the Daily Planet
It was a time to sing, to weep, to laugh and to remember.
Most of all, the “homegoing” service for Bishop Roy Nichols was a time to celebrate the life of a man known for at least two monumental firsts: Nichols was the first African American bishop in the United Methodist Church and he was Berkeley’s first African American school board member.
Nichols died Oct. 9 from a stroke at 84. Services were held Thursday at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in Oakland.
Born in 1918 in Hurlock, Md., Nichols graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and came to Berkeley in 1941, where he attended the Pacific School of Religion and earned a Divinity Degree. He became the founding pastor of the South Berkeley Community Church in 1943, a racially integrated church with white and black co-pastors. He married podiatrist Dr. Ruth Richardson in 1944. A few years later, he became founding minister at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church, a racially integrated church.
Nichols became a force in Berkeley politics in the late 1950s. While segregation was not the law, as in the South, it dominated the then-conservative, mostly Republican city.
As president of the NAACP, Nichols persuaded the Berkeley Board of Education to study segregation in the schools. A report, issued in 1959, pointed to the need for counseling for black students, hiring black teachers, teaching black history and other measures seeking to end discriminatory policies.
That year Nichols lost a bid for City Council, but in 1961, won a seat as the first African American on the school board.
“He ran for the Berkeley board of education to make a difference in the lives of children,” said Dr. Ruth Love, former schools superintendent in Chicago and former educator in the Oakland public schools. Hundreds listened at the Downs Memorial sanctuary and in adjacent rooms watching the services on closed-circuit television.
On the school board, Nichols worked for a school desegregation plan, eventually implemented, where Burbank Junior High, now Berkeley’s adult school, became an integrated ninth grade school and the three junior high schools were racially balanced.
Nichols, however, moved on before the realization of that plan. He became pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in Harlem, N.Y. The new post did not take him away from the burden of fighting segregation.
“The Methodist Church had a segregated system,” Rev William James said.
Nichols “started fighting the segregated church.”
A key part of that fight, in 1968 Nichols got the church to approve the creation of a Commission on Religion and Race. Even some blacks feared that a desegregated church was not the answer and that African Americans would not be given leadership roles in a united church, James said.
They were wrong. In 1968, Nichols was appointed bishop in the newly formed United Methodist Church. He served as Bishop of the Pittsburgh area for 12 years and served as bishop in New York until his retirement in 1984, after which he continued to preach and lecture in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a stroke in 1999, Nichols and his wife moved to San Jose.
Warren and Mary Lee Widener were among the friends attending the service Thursday. Warren Widener, a former county supervisor and former mayor of Berkeley said he and his wife met Nichols in 1959, when they came to the Downs Memorial Church and took on the task of youth advisors. Their friendship continued over almost half a century.
“He was a pastor in the old fashioned sense,” said Mary Lee Widener. “He understood human needs. He was clearly a leader and a developer of leaders. He counseled you, supported you, loved you through it all.”
Nichols is survived by his wife, Dr. Ruth Nichols, children, Melisande Schwartzfarb of New York, Allegra Lewis of San Jose and Nathan Nichols of Washington, D.C. and five grandchildren.