During Black History Month, we celebrate the numerous contributions of prominent African Americans such as scientist George Washington Carver and entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. Less well known are scholars whose lives and work are not featured in radio spots or trivia games. One of these underappreciated scholars is the Rev. Dr. Charles Buchanan Copher (1913-2003). Copher, an African-American biblical scholar, was one of the first to address issues of race and ethnicity in ancient texts and in contemporary interpretation.
Copher was one of the first professionally trained African-American biblical scholars, earning his Ph.D. in Old Testament from Boston University in 1947. He served as faculty at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 1948-1959. Also, from 1959 until his retirement in 1978 as Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, he held faculty and administrative positions at The Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), a consortium of six African-American denominational seminaries in Atlanta, Georgia.
Like other scholars such as James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, Copher's scholarship developed in part as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Copher's most well-known publication is an anthology of lectures and essays, Black Biblical Studies: Biblical and Theological Issues on the Black Presence in the Bible: An Anthology of Charles B. Copher (1993). His ground-breaking analysis argued for the presence and significance of Blacks in the Bible at a time when mainstream scholarship did not acknowledge the importance of Africa and African peoples in the study of biblical literature. His work offered a fresh perspective on biblical scholarship and helped to transform theological education.
Copher's work was foundational for much of the contextual biblical research that followed. Rev. Dr. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins is a biblical scholar and President and CEO of the Institute for Advanced African-American Christian Thought. He explains, "Copher challenged the Eurocentric perspective of biblical scholarship. He is a trailblazer in biblical studies as the father of the "Black presence in the Bible" approach." Copher's influence is evident in the scholarship of Vincent Wimbush, Clarice Martin, Brian Blount, Renita Weems, and others.
As a dedicated scholar as well as a committed churchman, Copher was an "engaged academic" who combined public engagement with his scholarly work. He was an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and was active not just locally but nationally within his denomination. Rev. Dr. Vanessa Lovelace is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at ITC where Copher worked for decades. She is literally and figuratively a part of Copher's legacy. She explains, "As an emerging scholar, I am 'unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian' and situate myself within the tradition of Copher. Like him, I seek to establish new avenues of research and to construct opportunities for dialogue between the academy and the Church."
Although he published extensively in religious journals, Copher's work is not widely known, but Copher has not been forgotten. The edited volume, The Recovery of Black Presence: An Interdisciplinary Exploration: Essays in Honor of Dr. Charles B. Copher (1994) offers tributes to the work of Copher and reflections on his significance for biblical studies as well as in other religion-related disciplines. ITC holds an annual lectureship in his memory, the Charles B. Copher Annual Faculty Lecture Series. Also, new generations of biblical scholars are acknowledging the legacy of Copher beyond African-American biblical hermeneutics in publications such as Re-presenting Texts: Jewish and Black Biblical Interpretation.
Let us add the name Charles B. Copher to the list of those we honor this month and always.