At about the same time people began marching through the streets of Chattanooga – and around the world – demanding racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many Chattanoogans learned that Nina Hale had died.
Beginning more than 50 years earlier, she had once pounded the pavement of many of these same downtown Chattanooga streets while also working toward racial justice.
But she did it in the form of love and outreach.
Although likely not a familiar name to most in the larger realm of local civil rights pioneers in the post-World War II era, Ms. Hale, who died on May 29 at the age of 77, did make one small corner of Chattanooga racially whole.
She had been a young white woman who in the mid-to-late 1960s began a church outreach ministry to lower-income children residing in downtown.
And at that time when the so-called urban flight had taken place, the vast majority of downtown residents were black. Ms. Hale, who worked at First Methodist Church and later the combined First-Centenary United Methodist, simply had a God-inspired personal dream to lift up and help the neighborhood children through positive programming and activities.
It became what is believed to be about the first inter-racial outreach program by a local downtown Chattanooga church congregation in the post-segregation era. And it grew into what is now the church’s still-vibrant Centenary program.
“She really took to heart Jesus’ second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself,” said Bill Cushman, a longtime First-Centenary UMC member, who along with his wife, Sandy, became good friends with Ms. Hale and her late husband, Jerry, over the years.
“She asked, ‘Who is your neighbor?’ ”
Ms. Hale had actually developed some of her progressive ideas for the time in South Carolina, where the lines of segregation and prejudice had been even stronger than in East Tennessee.
According to some information from another good friend, Brenda Neal, Ms. Hale grew up in Manning, S.C., in a devout Methodist family. Her father was known for treating everyone fairly, and her grandmother encouraged her to dream of becoming a foreign missionary.
She later attended Columbia College, a women’s Methodist school in the South Carolina capital city. A double major in religion and education, she was influenced by not only the Old Testament prophets she studied, but also by a theology writer named Paul Tillich.
Ms. Hale, who taught first grade for one year in Columbia, also went to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University as one of the few women students at the time.
During the early and mid-1960s, it was popular at some college campuses like Emory to wonder if God is dead, she had told Ms. Neal in a 2017 interview. But through everyone from a black professor to a friend who encouraged her to refocus her foreign missionary zeal, she realized God was indeed alive.
And the place where she seemed to sense He was alive and well the most – and where she wanted to be doing ministry -- was the inner city or the poorer urban neighborhoods.
She had married the supportive Jerry Hale, who went on to become an attorney with Milligan-Reynolds Guaranty Title Agency, and about that time she began serving as a Christian education staff member at First Methodist Church at McCallie and Georgia avenues.
Despite her diminutive size, she tried to stand figuratively as tall as the church’s stone steeple in boldly sharing her dream with the pastor, Dr. Robert Wilcox, about an outreach program the church could provide for the neighborhood youngsters.
To her happiness, he and the congregation supported the idea, and the all-white church began reaching out to the black neighborhood residents through some small programming that she coordinated in addition to her other duties.
While she was working to improve the plight of some of the youngsters, another force was at work. Due in part to a declining membership at First Church, a merger had been agreed upon with Centenary Methodist just a few feet across McCallie Avenue, so the two churches joined in early 1967 to become First-Centenary.
As a result, she had to resell the inner-city outreach program to a combined church led by the former Centenary pastor, Dr. Ralph Mohney, and others. While one or two people familiar with the situation said that not 100 percent of the individual church members supported the plan, and initially restrictions were put into place where the youngsters could go, the church and Dr. Mohney accepted the idea as a whole.
And in the process, the door to God’s kingdom was opened just a little wider.
“Nina had to develop political skills in order to bring people together,” said Mr. Cushman, a retired Baylor School teacher, of that time when she was trying to sell the church on her dream.
Several people interviewed also listed a number of church members who were indeed supportive of Ms, Hale’s program and offered help or encouragement during those early days.
After getting the church to open the doors for various activity and play programs, Bible stories and tutoring for neighborhood youngsters, Ms. Hale’s personality made opening the doors of downtown families even easier as she began visiting them.
“In her visits, she discovered families whose many children had to take turns going to school because two children shared one pair of shoes,” said Ms. Neal, whose husband, Charles, was senior pastor at First-Centenary from 2001-07.
“Nina discovered that the need was great and glaring and right at the church’s doorstep. The response was immediate from these working moms who often had to lock their children out of the house during the daytimes while they worked.”
Soon after the program began in 1967, dozens of children began coming to what was originally called the Inner-City Ministry. The city of Chattanooga’s parks and recreation department became involved, as did Jimmy Stubbs and the Chattanooga Mocs basketball program, and some Baylor School students began helping with tutoring.
Chattanooga was taking a small step toward racial wholeness and betterment through this somewhat early cross-cultural immersion program with a Christian emphasis.
During the early years of the program, Ms. Hale invited her former black professor at Candler in Atlanta to come up and visit her and see the program before the church built most of its current buildings. While visiting, he told her he was quite impressed and, in fact, wished a similar program had existed for him to enjoy and benefit from when he was a child.
Among those who also visited the program early on as a youngster was Johnny Oneal. He lived along the current East M.L King Boulevard in what he said was a rough neighborhood. Someone had mentioned about the church and its playground, so he decided to investigate it one day.
He did not realize it, but his life was about to be changed greatly and in a positive way.
“I went to the playground and everybody was playing,” said Mr. Oneal, who later came back as a longtime helper as an adult in coordination with the city parks department. “I met Harriet Holloway, who was the recreation director. There was a lot going on and I eased myself into the building. They had a photography class, a reading class and arts and crafts.
“There was so much going on, and the folks made me feel welcome. I soon forgot about my old neighborhood.”
But Ms. Hale made an unforgettable impression on him.
“Nina was so nurturing,” he recalled. “Now she was demanding. She expected you to act right. But she was so positive, and she was always there. And she was fearless. When she wanted something done, she saw a way to get it done.”
Sandy Cushman agreed that Ms. Hale did have several positive qualities and traits that lent themselves to effectively leading such a pioneering program.
“She would give you the shirt off her back,” she said. “And she was very insightful of what was happening to somebody, and people would share their whole story with her.”
Added Mr. Cushman, “She was an effective counselor.”
In her roughly six years of running the Inner City Ministry at First-Centenary UMC before leaving to raise her daughter, Eadie Broggie, she left her unique imprint.
And that included plenty of enthusiasm for what she was doing.
“She was unafraid to put her feet and body into a challenge,” said Ms. Neal.
She was even known for racing the youngsters – usually beating them and showing she was setting the pace locally in more than one way.
The program even grew to include such activities as getting the youngsters involved at Camp Lookout, the Methodist church camp on Lookout Mountain, or taking field trips to places like Six Flags Over Georgia.
Although she left the directorship early on and became involved on a volunteer basis in such other local outreach programs as the Children’s Home/Chambliss Shelter and Northside Neighborhood House, it continued to grow and blossom into the Centenary program.
As downtown continued to change with professionals moving into downtown, the church had to start drawing youngsters from other surrounding areas, although its ministry of trying to make a positive difference in youngsters’ lives through Christian support has remained.
Mary Grey Moses has served as director of the Centenary program since 2012, and she has dozens of youngsters from elementary to high school age involved, although they are currently having to meet remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Through observing the program and getting an opportunity to interview Ms. Hale in connection with the Centenary ministry’s 50th anniversary in 2017, she said she has become appreciative of her predecessor’s pioneering role.
And it was a position in which Ms. Hale showed countless times how to love a neighbor as she loved herself, no matter the color of one’s skin.
“She understood about being in community,” Ms. Moses said of Ms. Hale. “Her enthusiasm and love of children set the tone that has continued for 53 years.”