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Sidney Wood’s Atlanta Profile: Dr. Gerald Durley

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Durley

Photo courtesy of Dr. Gerald Durley

WAOK is pleased to present the inaugural edition of Atlanta Profiles, an online blog and media
presentation, featuring discussions with Atlanta’s most interesting people. Sidney Wood
contacts, interviews and posts the encounters with the hope that they cumulatively may give
greater context to America’s greatest city by examining its human resources.

Our first edition spotlights Dr. Gerald L. Durley, the senior pastor of Providence Missionary
Baptist Church. The interview was conducted in the pulpit of Providence Missionary Baptist
Church on May 3, 2012, just eight days before his 70th birthday. While we covered a number
of topics, Dr. Durley did not make a single mention of the Gerald L Durley Providence Manor
Senior Center on Campbellton Road, which offers scores of elderly residents a state of the art
community where which they may retire in dignity. We did cover many other areas. A synopsis
of the discussion is found in the question and answer segment below. The audio of the full
discussion may be enjoyed online and on-demand at your convenience.

Q: Dr. Durley while growing up you had some classmates in Denver, Colorado that we may be
familiar with. Who are they?
A: Of course Wellington Webb who became the mayor (of Denver) and built the big airport.
Wellington played on the Manuel High School team (basketball) with me. Another person who
went to high school there is Asa Hilliard one of the top Africanist and Egyptologist around.

Q: What did you decide to major in at Tennessee State University in the early 1960’s?
A: Psychology

Q: Was it during that time that the Freedom Rides (movement) began?
A: I got to Tennessee State and one of the things that coaches said was ‘don’t any of you fellas
go downtown’. So I went downtown one day to buy a cap (against my coaches’ advice). I went
to a store and put on a hat and it was a little tight. So I put it back on the shelf. Then the lady
who worked there said ‘that’ll be $6.50’ (three times). I told her that the hat didn’t fit. Then
the manager came out (after learning Durley tried the hat on) and said ‘Nigger let me tell you
one thing’, took the hat and slapped me across my face, took the money out of my pocket and
through me out on the street from the department store. And I stood there confused, angry,
hurt and embarrassed…and that’s what keeps me speaking truth to power this day. There is
always a moment in your life that changes your destiny.

Q: Did you go to the March on Washington?
A: I was standing there. We would work in Atlantic City during the summer to make money
to come back to school in the fall. That was August and we were all gung ho, then all of the
sudden Kennedy was killed. It was fearful in that a great leader was gone. We understood
we had to be more committed and fight stronger. It also convinced us that we had to be non-
violent.

Q: Compare and contrast student movement activities in the sixties to that today.
A: I think we need an organization today like SNCC (the Student Non Violent Coordinating
Committee). I want young people today to understand that there is a life and a living larger
than themselves that will make a difference in what they will do for themselves and their
children and our community. That does not exist. In those days there were two words that we
were not afraid to utter…sacrifice and risk. I don’t see the same kind of sacrificial discussion
going on in our schools and campuses today.

Q: After graduating from Tennessee State you decide to leave the United States. Where do
you go, why and what happens in this phase of your life?
A: A man came to the campus and asked me three questions…who do you know, where have
you been and how much money do you have. The man said if you go into this program in
two years you will know some people, you will have been somewhere, and you’ll have some
money. That man’s name was Samuel DeWitt Proctor and he convinced me to join the Peace
Corp. I was in the first Peace Corp group to go to Nigeria. The group was 75 (members) and
only 7 were black. There I saw a black airline pilot, black people on billboards, black police
officers…the president of the country was black…very powerful experience.

Q: It’s 1966 you’re coming back from Nigeria…where do you go now and what do you do?
A: I was still feeling that I would get right back in the movement and my passport got twisted
up (I couldn’t get back) and I got a little frustrated with America and ended up going to
Switzerland and living there for a year. A guy named Tom Morgan (one of the Peace Corp
members who finished Howard [University]) said the only place to go to find freedom for a
black man is Switzerland. He said ‘man let’s go to Switzerland’. There was a young lady I met
there named Muriel there (Durley’s future wife) who finished Fisk University.

Q: April 4, 1968, you’re getting your masters at Northern Illinois University, and Dr. King is
killed…
A: I said where do we go, what’s happening to the world. I was ready to give up on the civil
rights movement…just quit and find a job and then a guy said come to Washington and work
with COP (Career Opportunities Program) and I’m right back in motivating young people on the
campuses.

Q: It’s 1984, you are a grown man. You’re born in ’42 and you are 42 at that time. You have
left DC and you’re thoroughly lettered. You make a transition to Atlanta, Georgia…what do you
come here to do?
A: Dean of Clark College. I came with Elias (Blake the President of Clark College)…Dr. Proctor
told me to call Bill Guy (pastor of Friendship Baptist Church) and Joe Roberts (pastor of
Ebenezer Baptist Church)…before long I’m teaching Sunday school, I become a pulpit associate,
I get ordained at Ebenezer…this is ’84.

Q: Did you begin to think you had a call to ministry?
A: No, no, no, no… (laughter).

Q: Something happened to get you pastoring?
A: There was a small church on Larkin Street looking for a pastor. This was Benjamin Mayes’
church…every pastor had been a Morehouse man…Providence Missionary Baptist Church in
Atlanta…Joe Roberts put my name in.

Q: At 45 years old most people are planning to find the exit strategy…you are taking on a whole
new career. You begin your pastorate at 45. You don’t immediately quit your (day) job?
A: I don’t think anybody begins what they’re gonna do until at least 49. No one. The first 22
years you’re just trying to get it together. From 22 to 40 you’re exploring a lot of things…maybe
a family…then about 40 you say I better start getting serious…from 40 you start really getting
serious…around 49 you say this is what I’m going to do.

Q: You began at Providence with 50 members…you began to see growth. What do you
attribute that to?
A: I believe that anytime a person is following a compelling force in their life…if they pursue it
with integrity and humility…it will have the foundation…love what you do and be willing to do
what you ask others to do…that brings the growth.

Q: You don’t look 70…what say ye regarding the importance of health and fitness?
A: Absolutely essential in any profession. The sickest people I know physically, mentally and it
adds to their sickness spiritually…are pastors. We have poor diets…sedentary lifestyles and we
live under constant stress…those are factors that will destroy one’s health.

Q: You could not have fulfilled God’s plan for your life without Mrs. Durley (I presume).
A: Absolutely impossible! I could not have stayed married to me for three weeks…I would not
have married me…I could not have married me…I could not have done it. I say to any person
going into ministry…have a (spouse)…you need someone who can be very honest with you,
someone you can trust, someone who can laugh with you and cry with you…simultaneously…
and, you don’t have to explain why you’re crying or laughing. They just know it.

Q: What would you like to see in the next generation as someone succeeds you at Providence?
A: That’s easy. A servant of God comes in…the candidate should not say I want to start off with
$100,000 a year, I want to do seven revivals a year, I want to bring my own music director, a
house allowance of $5,000 a month and a car leased from the church. I would love for them to
ask how deeply engrained the church is in helping the community…the education system…the
health and welfare of members…do we have proper programs in place…are we concerned
about the environment and the political people. I can do this…I have a family and can live and
exist on this kind of money.

Q: Your happiest moment?
A: Unspeakable joy was when I came out of Dr. Talbert’s office and he said come back in 2016
because I don’t find any cancer in your body. Why don’t you go and enjoy the rest of your
beautiful long life with your wife. I met my wife in the lobby with tears of joy.

Q: When you retire in August what’s next?
A: I’m through with this. This phase is over. I’ve been preaching on the last three Sundays
on knowing what to relinquish. The time is now. Things are falling into place in miraculous
ways…two things must be apparent. It must be fun and it must make some money.

Q: Many, many years from now you will be eulogized…what would you like said?
A: Do you know something I don’t know (laughter)…as I’m talking to you right now I’m a father,
a husband, a pastor, a brother, an uncle, an interviewee…I would like to be remembered the
same by all of those people (I serve in those respective roles)…’he desired to want to make
somebody else’s life more enhanced’…let the life I live speak for me that my living not be in
vain. All the other things come and go…that’s the kind of legacy I would like to leave.

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