The Rev. John M. Moncrief, Jr.


The 29th of December 2023 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John McCoy Moncrief, Jr., among the more important people in Sewanee's long history.

In the summer of 1953, Moncrief broke the "color line" at Sewanee, becoming the first African American to enroll in the University of the South. Killed in an automobile accident in early 1955, he did not complete his degree.

If you are a member of the Sewanee community and have not heard of him, you should question why.

The Bulletin of The University of the South for 1953-54 listed John Moncrief among the Episcopal priests enrolled in the 1953 summer term of the Graduate School of Theology.

In official and professional explorations of the University’s history John Moncrief rates no more than a mention. In fact, until the Roberson Project began researching his life this fall in his native South Carolina, we had never seen a photograph of him.

Compared to the closely chronicled lives of the white men who ran the University and taught or studied there, Moncrief has been a faceless name inspiring almost no curiosity — a bit of information dropped into the larger dramas of the University of the South.

Made by history, not a maker of history.

Where had he been educated? Was he married? Did he have children? Were his parents alive at the time? What relationships fostered his sense of purpose and led him to the Episcopal Church and its ministry? Why had he applied to Sewanee, and what did he aim to accomplish in doing so?

The centennial anniversary of his birth allows us to reconsider John Moncrief and his contributions to Sewanee and to correct this blind spot in the University's history.

This slideshow is an initial installment from the more extensive research the Roberson Project is gathering on the first generation of African American men who broke the color line at Sewanee: at the School of Theology in 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1958, and at the College of Arts and Sciences in 1961, 1962, and 1963. As we collect more information, we will share what we learn.

You can find the names of these men in the best and most professional history of the University: Samuel R. Williamson, Jr.'s Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (2012), but you will not find any information about them or their lives before, during, and after their turbulent months at Sewanee.

Nowhere in the historical literature about Sewanee will you encounter anything so personal or human as this grainy image from 1954 of Moncrief, smiling, with members of the Canterbury Club of Black Episcopal students at HBCU South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

The Rev. John McCoy Moncrief, Jr. brought the Civil Rights Movement to Sewanee a year before the Supreme Court's Brown decision and two years before the Montgomery bus boycott.

The academic year before he applied and entered in the summer of 1953 had been the most divided and tumultuous in the University’s first century. In June 1952, the University’s governing Board of Trustees had defied instructions from the regional Episcopal Church leadership to admit Black men to the programs at Sewanee and the Virginia Theological School. They also resisted the protests of the University Chaplain, the head of the College’s Religion Department, and all but one of its Theology faculty, all of whom supported desegregating the seminary. In response, the eight professors resigned their positions effective the following summer and left Sewanee. The Trustees reversed their position on segregation in May 1953, opening the door for Black men to apply.

The front page of the Nashville Tennessean, June 7, 1952, announcing the selection of Dr. Edward McCrady to serve as Sewanee's new vice-chancellor and the Board of Trustees' decision not to admit Black candidates to its School of Theology.
The resignations of Sewanee's eight professors in protest of the Trustees' decision as reported by the Nashville Banner, November 6, 1952.

The Rev. Hannah Pommersheim, T’19, formerly the Roberson Project’s Senior Research Assistant, has written the best and most thoughtful account of events of 1952-1953. (In two parts, they were published in December 2018 and March 2019 as posts on the Roberson Project's Meridiana blog. See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.)

"Moncrief's matriculation," she observed, "capped a year of fierce and destructive debate about the identity, vision, and purpose of the University of the South and its Episcopal seminary. But damage already had been done. Over sixty percent of its student body had transferred. In academic terms, the School of Theology had lost a roster of distinguished and accomplished theologians and now had to rebuild the faculty from the ground up. Off the mountain, newspapers and church publications nationwide had portrayed the university as an institution of the Episcopal church determined to resist challenges to the segregated social order of the South.”

Official histories of the University have characterized the transition to desegregation as a “crisis” through which the wise and even-tempered University leadership steered the institution in spite of the hotheaded threats from extremists protesting and demanding the end of segregation. But “framing the story as a ‘crisis,’” Pommersheim observes, “tends to privilege the perspectives and priorities of the universities’ leaders. It tends to fixate on the administrative ‘ins and outs’ of managing the conflict and protecting institutional interest.” What gets left out in “crisis” accounts, she writes, is the “real issue” of the time that motivated the seminary faculty members and their colleagues: “how a Christian ought to think and act in the face of racial injustice.”

What also get left out in "crisis accounts" are the voices and actions of the young Black men who pushed against the boundaries of segregation at Sewanee.

Based on what we have learned so far about John Moncrief, his application to Sewanee was a deliberate act on his part to defy the "face of racial injustice at Sewanee" and in the Episcopal Church.

What follows is a "first draft" of his history.

(The photo, from the 1955 Bulldog yearbook of South Carolina State University, is courtesy of their archives.)

A first draft of a biography of John McCoy Moncrief, Jr.

John McCoy Moncrief, Jr., was born December 29, 1923, in Blackville, South Carolina, today an hour’s drive south of Columbia. He was named after his father; the family called both of them “Johnny.” Blackville, in rural Barnwell County on the border with Georgia, had a population in 1920 of 1,421.

Moncrief’s mother was Mary Hallman Moncrief, according to the 1955 death certificate of her son. Mary Hallman was 17 years old in 1920, living at home in Bamberg (15 miles east of Blackville) with her two sisters and widowed mother. The census taker noted that Mary Hallman could read and write, but her mother and older sister could not. They all were farm laborers. She apparently married Johnny Moncrief, Sr., around the time of her son's birth in 1923. In the 1930 census, she is listed as a widow, her last name spelled “Moncree.” She was living with her mother in Blackville, her son “Johnnie M.” (age 6) and daughter Mary Louise (age 4). She cooked for a white family, and her mother was a farm laborer.

The information on Johnny Sr. is slimmer. The 1900 Census shows him in Blackville, 11 years old, attending school, able to read and write, and dwelling with his parents, “Jim” and Mary, and six siblings. His name is listed as “Jim Jr.,” likely a mistake on the census taker’s part. His son's 1955 death certificate names his father as “Johnny Moncrief.” His father was a gardener and illiterate; his mother, a “washerwoman” who could read and write. We believe Johnny Sr. died between 1925 and 1930.

This information gleaned from Census reports in 1920, 1930, and 1940 indicates the family pursuit of education. Although domestic and manual laborers, John Jr.’s grandmother and both his parents could read and write. The boy was enrolled in school at age six and had ten years of education by his sixteenth year.

The 1940 Census information for John Moncrief, Jr. and his family.

We do not know where he was educated before 1941. He may have attended Blackville's Emerson Institute, a school for Black children founded by Presbyterian missionaries in the late 1880s. (It closed in 1933. This photo shows a crowded Emerson Institute classroom in 1924.) Or he may have studied at the Macedonia School, which the county's first Black church, Macedonia Baptist, launched in 1890.

The image of the Emerson Institute classroom is courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

In the fall of 1941, when he was 18 years old, Moncrief enrolled in the Voorhees Industrial Institute for Colored Youths, an Episcopal school in Denmark, S.C., some ten miles east of Blackville. He left Voorhees in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

The four institutions of higher education that Moncrief attended (in chronological order, clockwise from top left): Voorhees Industrial Institute for Colored Youths, which he left to enter the U.S. Navy in 1943; after the war, Hobart College (now Hobart and William Smith), an Episcopal institution in upstate New York; Fisk University in Nashville, where he received his B.A. in 1947; and General Theological Seminary in New York City, where he trained for the priesthood.
Moncrief's draft card described him as 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds, with brown eyes, black hair, and dark brown skin. In the Navy he achieved the rank of "Steward Second Class." Stewards were attendants in the Naval officers' mess, a common job for Black sailors in the segregated Navy, which barred them from combat roles and specialized jobs.

After his discharge from the Navy in January 1946, Moncrief enrolled the next fall at Hobart College, an Episcopal men's college in Geneva, New York. The 1947 yearbook shows him seated, bottom right, with his Hobart classmates.

Moncrief left Hobart and enrolled at Fisk University the next year, where he majored in Religion and Philosophy, with a minor in History. He received his B.A. in 1949.

(This image appears courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.)

After his graduation in 1949 from Fisk, where he majored in Philosophy and Religion and minored in History, Moncrief began his studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. During his three years there, he gravitated toward work with "troubled boys" who were under institutional care or confinement. His first summer at seminary he worked at the National Training School for Boys, a federal residential facility in Washington, D.C. The final two years at General Moncrief served as chaplain and choir director of the Children's Village, a residential school for "troubled boys" in Dobbs Ferry near New York City. He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree in June 1952 and was ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church.

Moncrief began his ministry as vicar of St. Paul's Mission Church for Black Episcopalians in Orangeburg in 1953. As a "mission church" before desegregation, or one that could not independently sustain itself financially, the priest was a "vicar," and St. Paul's affairs were likely overseen by the diocesan bishop and/or leadership of the local white Church of the Redeemer. He also assumed priestly duties at South Carolina State University.

St. Paul's had a long history with the HBCU South Carolina State. The church building shown here, which dates to 1950, shortly before Moncrief's assignment there, is located next to the campus. According to the rector of the Church of the Redeemer, services are no longer held here. Both parishes also have left the American Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church in North America.

In the spring of 1954, the president of South Carolina State offered the chaplain's position to Moncrief. This item appears courtesy of the South Carolina State Archives.

As a priest, Moncrief was a "High Church" Episcopalian, his ministry practicing the rituals and liturgy in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Here, probably following the celebration of the Eucharist with the South Carolina State Canterbury Club of Episcopal students, Moncrief wears the distinctive symbols of Anglo-Catholicism: the four-cornered cap, or biretta, and, on his left arm, an embroidered strip of cloth, or maniple. This image appears in the South Carolina State yearbook, The Bulldog of 1955.

In the summer of 1953, Moncrief enrolled in Sewanee's Graduate School of Theology. Staffed separately from the School of Theology, according to the University Bulletin, it "afford[ed] to clergymen an opportunity for post-ordination study, in close personal contact with recognized leaders of theological knowledge and interpretation." It offered courses for five weeks in the summer. Its students typically were practicing Episcopal priests who sought the advanced Master of Sacred Theology degree. They were expected to complete the requirements in four to seven summers of study.

How are we to understand Moncrief's decision to attend the summer program at Sewanee?

Among the white leadership at the time, who were trying to control the conditions under which the University would desegregate, it appears no one believed Moncrief knew what he was doing. They regarded him as an unfortunate pawn used by radical elements who were unconcerned about the damage the push to desegregate was inflicting on the University.

In a diary entry for July 28, 1953, Sewanee's president — called the Vice-Chancellor — Edward McCrady, noted the following: “Our first negro student enrolled today in the Graduate School of Theology — Reverend John W. Moncrief, Jr. It was not his own idea and was done without consultation with his bishop. He was prompted by Reverend George Milton Crum, Jr. of Allendale, S.C.”

George Milton Crum, Jr., in the 1950 Sewanee yearbook. For many years Crum was professor of homiletics at Virginia Theological School in Alexandria.

McCrady's conviction that Crum was to blame for causing all the trouble was not surprising. A native of Orangeburg and Clemson graduate, Crum had received his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 from Sewanee's School of Theology. He writes in an unpublished autobiography that he arrived at Sewanee a segregationist and racist, although recent personal experiences had shaken his convictions. He credits a seminary professor at Sewanee, "Dr. McGregor," with subtly but effectively leading him to reevaluate his claims to Christian principles in light of his and others' racist beliefs and practices. (Writing at the end of his life, Crum probably misremembered and meant Dr. Robert Malcolm McNair, one of the faculty who later resigned.)

In response, Crum volunteered to serve the Episcopal St. Mark's Mission Church in Sewanee's segregated Black neighborhood. From these experiences, augmented by his own sociological research, emerged his thesis, “Happy Hollow, Sewanee, Tennessee: A study of the people, their attitudes and their hopes.” The thesis systematically exposed and indicted the University for not just countenancing, but creating and then justifying the deplorable conditions under which African Americans lived and worked in Sewanee. On paper, he wrote, the University “is a Christian institution,” but in reality it “was failing to put Christian principles into action.”

In his autobiographical reflections, Crum, who lived in nearby Allendale, recalls that he and Moncrief had become friends in 1952-53, during his first year as vicar of St. Paul's and during the year of turmoil over segregation of the seminary at the University of the South. But applying to Sewanee was Moncrief's idea, not his. Moncrief, he recalls, had studied at General under the Rev. M. Bowyer Stewart, who directed Sewanee’s Graduate School of Theology. “John had requested information about Sewanee’s graduate school, but had decided not to attend until Dr. Marshall [actually Stewart] wrote and asked why he had not applied. I had told John that if he attended I would go and room with him.”

Crum and Moncrief drove together to Sewanee from South Carolina and roomed together the summer of 1953—both violations of white southern folkways governing race mixing. Crum, whose memory late in life was understandably imperfect, recalled having to sit with Moncrief in the segregated area for Black patrons at the Sewanee Union Theatre, and that McCrady spread the word publicly that Moncrief was disorderly and drunk and used “lewd and obscene language.” Crum collected rebuttal letters from other seminary students and faculty and vouched to his bishop for Moncrief’s good character. The bishop, he recalled, confronted the Vice-Chancellor "with the letters and … put an end to the vendetta against John.”

The headline in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, Feb. 24, 1955.

There is no evidence as yet that John Moncrief returned to Sewanee for the summer 1954 session of the Graduate School program. There is a friendly letter in his archival file thanking him for photos he had sent to the University's publicity director in January 1955, about a month before his death, but no other sign that either he or Milton Crum had returned the previous summer. On Ash Wednesday morning, February 23, 1955, Moncrief was driving to church after picking up coffee and doughnuts for early services. A mile from the church, according to Crum, he reached down to steady the urn of coffee, lost control of the car, struck a tree, and was killed.

But there is other evidence that it was not a white puppet master, but John Moncrief himself who made the decision to challenge the "color line" at Sewanee. Crum's recollections appear reliable despite his faulty memory with names.

In September 2018 I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, to interview the retired Episcopal priest, the Rev. Canon Dr. Joseph N. Green, Jr. (1926-2023).

The late Father Green is well known in Sewanee because he and his first cousin, William O'Neal, were the first African Americans to receive a Sewanee degree — the Master of Sacred Theology — in 1965. (On the left, a portrait of Green as a young priest.)

Green knew John Moncrief well and regarded him as a mentor. When I interviewed him at his home in 2018, he was 92 years old. His memory was sharp, but his recall of names was imperfect. Throughout the interview, he referred to Moncrief as "Bob" instead of "John." But on virtually all other points, his recollections proved easy to verify.

In my interview with him, he remembered going in 1953 "to Orangeburg to visit with Father Moncrief. We went out to this camp and I don’t know what the event was out there but we began to talk. And he talked about going to Sewanee. He was going this year. And he said even though he was told not to come, and he read a letter to us by, I think, from a Bishop asking him not to come. And it was interesting the contents of that letter. How that would change things in the South. And how they had been, you know, been so diligent [at Sewanee] in working things out and it would not be comfortable for him anyway but it would change things forever at The University of the South. And asked him not to come. Well, [Moncrief] was determined to go anyway. Because the year before that was the vote of the faculty at Sewanee’s School of Theology. Because [the Trustees] had voted not to admit Black students, [the faculty had decided to resign.] ... So, at the next meeting of the Board of Trustees they changed their rule, I mean law. They changed and said they would admit Black students to the School of Theology. And Moncrief said he was going and he went."

We still have only fragments of information about and the briefest moments of insight into the life of the Rev. John McCoy Moncrief, Jr.: his childhood in the Jim Crow world of rural South Carolina, the influences that guided and shaped his education, the experiences that led him to the Episcopal Church, the impact of his service in the segregated U.S. Navy, his decision to attend and then leave Hobart for Fisk, and then move to New York City to study for the priesthood.

We know that he never married and had no children. He supported his mother who lived in New York City with his sister during and after his years in the seminary. He returned to South Carolina and took up his ministry at a church and university long associated with the education of Black youth in defiance of the entrenched power of white supremacy. And in the late spring of 1953, after Sewanee's Trustees reversed their earlier decision to block desegregation of the University's Episcopal seminary, he applied and was accepted to its Graduate School. He drove with a young white priest several hundred miles across the Jim Crow South to begin his studies at an institution long known and proudly celebrated as "the child and heir of the Confederacy."

Moncrief's veterans gravestone in Orangeburg's historic Black cemetery. Image courtesy of

Father Green's recollections are vitally important for our continuing research into the life and experiences of John Moncrief.

No one person deserves all the credit. There were some white students, faculty members, and administrators at the University and in its alumni community who pushed and guided Sewanee through this period of historic change and decision-making.

But however limited our knowledge about the first generation of young Black men who had to break the color line numerous times before it yielded for good at Sewanee, we do know that these men were the critically important actors in the struggle to end Jim Crow at the University of the South — and John Moncrief was the first leader of this movement.

In 2018, I asked Father Green to put Moncrief's and his actions and relationship in perspective, and what he described as a premeditated and concerted plan of action to end segregation in the Episcopal Church and its educational institutions. "It was deliberate," he recalled.

"We wanted to go and break down the barriers that we had broken down in other places. And we felt this was our obligation in a sense. The church cannot function as a separate and unequal institution, the school certainly cannot. And Bob Moncrief was our leader in that. The reason he didn’t go back or the reason we did not go with him, he was killed in an automobile accident. On the day before Lent. On Ash Wednesday, killed in an automobile accident. Taking some doughnuts to get ready for the event of the next day."

One thing is clear from all that we have learned about the first generation of African American students at Sewanee:

No account of the University of the South's history as a whole will ever be complete or truthful if it does not include the voices and experiences of the African American people who shaped and influenced Sewanee's development before and after emancipation. And our understanding of Sewanee's long and difficult path to desegregation will remain slanted in favor of the University leadership's "crisis" management so long as we do not recognize the names of John Moncrief and the other young men — Merrick Collier, Samuel Rudder, Joseph Green, William O'Neal, James Cohen, Calvin Kendall Williams, Rickey Rowe — whose actions desegregated the University of the South.

This brief account of John Moncrief's life is fragmentary. If you have information that will help us write a more complete history of him and others in the first generation of Black students, please reach out to us by email at, or call us at (931) 598-1685.

This web presentation on John Moncrief is the work of Dr. Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and Frances S. Houghteling Professor of American History at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.