Mistakes, Apologies, and Actions Through the Years
This article was edited by Rev. Ellen Debenport with contributions from CEO Jim Blake, UWH board members Revs. Sandra Campbell and Charline Manuel, and diversity officer Alexandra Scott.
The first step is to admit you have a problem
In the past century, Unity officials have periodically acknowledged the organization’s failures and shortcomings concerning racial equality. Some have apologized. Some have taken a few steps toward improvement.
But today, walking across the beautiful Unity Village campus with its rose garden and fountains, the preponderance of white faces indicates something remains amiss, that somehow Unity still fails to reflect the basic demographics of America.
One of the primary teachings of Unity is that becoming aware of spiritual principles is not enough. Resting in faith that all people are divine and made in God’s image is not the same as taking purposeful steps to ensure all are treated equally and fairly. Both are necessary—belief and action.
For the past few years, Unity World Headquarters has made diversity and equity a priority. It has moved beyond acknowledgment into a concerted, long-term program of inclusion for the Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+ communities, and people with various physical disabilities. All are important, but this story is about Unity policies that discriminated against Black people and how Unity Village is rising above its past.
The work is far from over. And the work calls for an honest account of what happened, what is being done now, and the Unity commitment for the future.
A Sad History, a New Movement
It’s not easy to know where the story begins. Is it when the first slave ships landed on American shores? Is it when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory that included what is now Missouri, where Unity would be established as a publishing house and prayer ministry?
Maybe it’s in 1821, when Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state. In a compromise to balance the number of slave and nonslave states, Maine was admitted as a free state at the same time.
During the American Civil War, the people of Missouri were deeply divided. Men fought in armies on both sides, sometimes neighbor against neighbor, and two state governments supported the Union and Confederacy.
After slavery was abolished, an ongoing, undeclared war against free Black people began. Black people began to leave Missouri in droves, in fear for their lives, sometimes literally chased from their homes. Others were lynched.
See the Historical Timeline of Unity Race Relations
But a fairly large Black settlement developed in Kansas City, Missouri, where Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, a white couple, set up headquarters in 1889 for their new spiritual venture called Unity. They began publishing a magazine to share the spiritual principles they were learning, and in 1890 they organized a prayer ministry to support their readers, neighbors, and families—anyone who asked for prayer.
In 1914 the Fillmores incorporated their work as Unity School of Christianity. Said Charles Fillmore, “The object of this school is the redemption of the human race.”
Students could take classes in person or by correspondence. Study groups sprang up and churches later developed. In 1933 Unity began formally training ministers for ordination.
Historical pictures show Black students with the Fillmores in the 1920s. In a speech at the 1927 Unity summer conference, Charles Fillmore said, “We see no separation in color, in race, in sect, in creed, in anything. We are all one in Spirit.” But transcripts of his Sunday lessons in those years show he occasionally made jokes about Black people.
As Unity began to thrive in those early decades, Black people were still being lynched in Missouri. It wasn’t as common as in the Deep South, but the Equal Justice Initiative estimates 60 Black people were lynched in Missouri between 1877 and 1950. It does not seem to have been part of the discussion at Unity.
Blacks in the Early Years
Little is known about the Fillmores’ racial views. Charles Fillmore was born in a log cabin on a Native American reservation in Minnesota. He grew up among the Chippewa tribe with French traders and trappers and had scant formal education.
Myrtle Fillmore grew up in Ohio where her father was an active abolitionist, helping slaves from the south escape through the Underground Railroad. She graduated in 1867 with a teaching license from Oberlin College, the first collegiate institution in the United States to admit Black men, starting in 1835, and all women two years later. That means Myrtle attended an integrated, coed college—rare for the time.
There is no record of her addressing the issue of race. The only clue is that Wee Wisdom® magazine for children, which Myrtle founded and edited, included a Black child on its standard cover drawing starting in 1901. But for 98 years as the longest-running children’s magazine in America, Wee Wisdom’s artwork overwhelmingly depicted white children.
As Unity grew, Black people began to lead study groups and Unity centers, and groups for “colored people” were listed in Weekly Unity magazine. Black people were featured speakers at a program during the 1928 Annual Conference at Unity Farm. They were admitted to the Unity Training School, which was established in 1931 and designed as a four-year correspondence school with students encouraged to visit campus for one month each summer.
The Training School was housed at Unity Farm, in what is now the Education Building, built in 1929. The country setting was more pleasant for out-of-town students than the crowded downtown headquarters. Classes included Bible interpretation, healing principles, and prayer, using some of the original books published by Unity. In 1933, Rickert Fillmore, the second son of Charles and Myrtle, established a ministerial training program at Unity Farm.
There was one caveat: Black students were not allowed to live on Unity grounds. They could participate in classes and activities but could not spend the night. It was a reflection of Jim Crow practices at the time and perhaps of what were called sundown towns, where Black people were clearly told they would not be safe after dark.
Starting in 1934, the Training School Bulletin stipulated, “Owing to limited living accommodations at Unity Farm, it will be necessary for all colored students who register for classwork to live in Kansas City. Colored students should write to us as early as possible in regard to their plans, so that we may arrange for their comfort and convenience in Kansas City.”
Those arrangements were made by Mary Walker, one of a handful of Black Unity employees, who also supervised cooking. The bulletin specified, “Meals will be served a la carte to Negro students in the Terrace Tea Room,” which meant separately from white students.
The discriminatory housing policy was challenged by a Black-owned newspaper in Kansas City, The Call, founded in 1919 and still published today. In 1934, Lowell Fillmore, the eldest son of Charles and Myrtle who was general manager at the time, was quoted trying to explain: “We are feeling our way along. This is Missouri, and the Missouri people are not educated to the point, as yet, where they will accept Negroes on a basis of equality.”
Two Defining Stories
Unity clearly reflected the racial attitudes of America and Missouri at the time, and evidently no one questioned it. In an organization full of ministers and teachers who believed they were offering Truth about the love of God and the divinity of humankind, no one seemed to notice the disconnect between the Unity teachings of universal oneness and the policies that actively discriminated against Blacks. That is, no one white seemed to notice, and white people were running Unity.
Then two things happened in the middle of the 20th century. Any attempt to condense 130 years’ worth of racial history at Unity must include both stories. The first is Johnnie Colemon. The second is the swimming pool.
In 1952 Unity for the first time ordained two Black ministers, Mabel Butts and Helen Mouton. The next year, another Black woman, Johnnie Colemon, began studying for the ministry. She had been drawn to the healing principles taught by Unity after she was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given six months to live. Alive and now healthy, she was herself a healing miracle, and she wanted to dive deeply into the teachings to change others’ lives as well.
Like all Black students, she was told she could not live on campus.
For two years, Colemon commuted 15 miles each way to the YWCA in Kansas City. One day on her way to school, her car broke down in the pouring rain. By the time she got to campus, she had had enough, she wrote later. Dripping wet, she found her white classmates in the restaurant, burst into tears and told them, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m finished. I won’t be back.”
Her classmates wouldn’t accept it. They signed a petition urging Unity to provide housing for Colemon, and the School relented. Unity offered her a cottage at the end of the farm where some of the workers lived. “It was not a nice cottage. They expected me to say no. I said, ‘Fine. Take me to it.’”
Johnnie Colemon, like Unity, was changed by the experience.
“I made up my mind the first night in that cold cottage that I would be very aware of all people in my ministry,” she later wrote. “I knew the series of events that I had experienced would no doubt make me a leader among my race. However, I made a commitment to teaching all people the soul-saving Jesus Christ principles that enabled me to change the course of my life, to endure indignities, and to begin again.”
After that, the training brochure no longer said Black students would have to live in Kansas City. For many years, however, housing on campus remained segregated and of unequal quality.
Johnnie Colemon moved on to spectacular success. A discussion group that had met around her table eventually grew into a church in Chicago called Christ Unity Temple that attracted thousands of people. For nearly 20 years, she stayed in Unity, wrangling periodically with her white colleagues and the Association of Unity Churches, now called Unity Worldwide Ministries, which was formed as a standalone nonprofit in 1966 to support ministers and ministries. She served as president of the Association in 1970, again overcoming obstacles and resistance.
In 1974 Colemon left Unity and created a branch of New Thought called the Universal Foundation for Better Living (UFBL), which now has churches and study groups in North and South America and the Caribbean. She renamed her Chicago church Christ Universal Temple, taking Unity out of the name. In 2001 she founded the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary. After more than 50 years in ministry, she made her transition in 2014 at age 94.
Rosemary Fillmore Rhea, the granddaughter of Charles and Myrtle, was among the recent Unity leaders who have reflected on Johnnie Colemon’s story with embarrassment and regret. She wrote in her book, That’s Just How My Spirit Travels, “Today it is difficult to believe that Unity would participate in such blatant discrimination. The only excuse I can find, and a sorry excuse it is, is that Unity had never before become involved in social issues, and the School was simply following the culture of the community of which it was part. Johnnie Colemon let her voice be heard, and by so doing, she made an important contribution to Unity and its future. She is living proof that if you stand on principle and move forward with faith, there is no mountain that cannot be moved.”
In 2016 Unity Village hosted “Johnnie Colemon Day, A Day of Remembrance,” led by officials from both Unity organizations and the Universal Foundation for Better Living, honoring her courage and accomplishments and again acknowledging her unfair treatment and the racial discrimination at Unity.
On the drawing board now are plans for a Johnnie Colemon Cottage on campus. Unity plans to expand one of the Fillmore homes near the main circle and remodel it for use as an Airbnb, which has been successful with other historic buildings on campus. That way, overnight accommodations will always be available on Unity grounds in honor of Johnnie Colemon.
And the pool? One of the amenities on campus was a sparkling swimming pool under the trees, built in 1922 and enthusiastically used by employees, students, and people attending retreats and conferences. Again bowing to a common practice of the era, Unity did not allow Black people to swim in the pool.
There are varying stories about how the policy ended. The one told most often takes place in the hot summer of 1963 during a youth conference at Unity Village. White kids went swimming while Black kids stood at the edge of the pool and watched. Rev. Ralph Rhea, who was codirector of the Field Department, couldn’t stand it. “Everyone swims!” he hollered. The Black kids jumped in and the pool was thereby integrated.
Unity Urban Ministerial School
Another Black minister in Unity, Rev. Dr. Ruth Mosley, also found that operating with some distance from the official organization worked better for her and her community.
Mosley was ordained in 1966 and had been a student of Johnnie Colemon’s. In 1978, Colemon, who had already left for UFBL, wrote an article in Ebony magazine telling the nation about discrimination Black students experienced at Unity. It caused a stir among Unity ministers.
A white minister named Stan Hampson asked Mosley, “What can we do to help your people?” She quickly answered, “Educate them; we need our own school.”
Hampson asked why Black students wouldn’t simply attend the existing seminary, as Mosley had. Her blunt assessment: “You all don’t accept us as we are.”
She explained to anyone who would listen that the Unity system for licensing teachers and ordaining ministers was stacked against Black people with tests biased in favor of whites, and that its discriminatory practices were counter to Unity teachings.
At the time, the Association of Unity Churches was overseeing all ministerial training. Mosley lobbied the Association board, of which she was a member and would later be president, to win approval for her school. One official recommended she put her proposal in “white folks’ language,” so a couple of white ministers helped edit it, she said later. Although permission was granted for the school, she remembered a prominent white minister on the Association board told her, “Ruth, we’re not going to give you a dime. You have to make it on your own.”
Mosley already had founded and grown a large, prosperous church called West Side Unity in Detroit, Michigan. She used tithes from the church to help fund the fledgling seminary.
In 1979 Mosley founded the Unity Urban Ministerial School in Detroit. Her intention was to train ministers who wanted to carry the teachings to inner cities and to attract more Black people into Unity ministry. Unity had 10 Black ministers at the time—11 others had left with Johnnie Colemon.
The first eight students—the “Detroit Eight”—graduated in 1982. By 2021 the Urban School, often called The House That Ruth Built, had added 175 ministers, Black and white, to the Unity ranks. The school was also the first to develop online classes in Unity, starting with three students in 2008.
Mosley made her transition in 2020 at the age of 90. Unity plans to refurbish another of the original buildings on campus for use as an Airbnb and name it to honor the work and legacy of Ruth Mosley.
An Apology at Last
In the 1990s ministerial students and Unity officials began taking tentative steps toward racial healing. Then in 2003 a special event to address the racial past was offered in a joint statement from Tom Zender, then CEO of Unity School, and Glenn Mosley, then president and CEO of the Association of Unity Churches.
We wish to present a truthful telling of your story, including any injustices you may have experienced. We will extend a formal apology; in addition, we will offer a healing ceremony for all who choose to participate.
As Unity begins its new era, we have the opportunity to embody Dr. King’s dream. We envision healing the wounds of racial strife and prejudice with a renewed commitment to embracing the blessings of diversity as we step into the 21st century. We invite your prayerful support of this vision, and sincerely hope you are inspired to join us.
The healing ceremony took place in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January 2004. Officials acknowledged and apologized for the treatment of Black people at Unity through the years. MLK Day itself would not become a paid holiday for Unity employees until 2017 under the current CEO, Jim Blake.
Blake, who earlier served as chief information officer and vice president of operations from 2006 to 2011, has been working to improve diversity and inclusion almost since the day he returned to Unity as chief executive in September 2016. His commitment was sparked by back-to-back events, he said.
One was his job interview with the Unity Board of Directors. Rev. Charline Manuel, who was at the time the only Black board member, asked him directly how he would address the absence of people of color at the Village. He said he was touched as she described her difficult experiences with a lack of diversity and inclusion in Unity. (A year later, Rev. Sandra Campbell, another Black minister, also joined the 12-member Unity World Headquarters board.)
“A few weeks after I started,” CEO Blake said, “I realized just how much we lacked diversity on campus. I was also becoming more and more aware of how difficult it is for marginalized populations to succeed in our country and waking up to the systemic ideologies that are slanted toward white people. It began to be clear to me that we were out of alignment with our name and teachings, and I was going to have to make this a greater priority.”
The second nudge was from an employee who approached the new CEO. “She shared with me her love for Unity and our organization but then went on to express her concern that there were not more people on campus who looked like her. Furthermore, she shared with me that her lived experience on campus as a person of color wasn’t always pleasant. This was a huge disappointment to me. It really told me that we needed to change our culture so that everyone felt seen, heard, and appreciated for who they were.”
Blake committed to three things:
- Improve the diversity at Unity World Headquarters.
- Create an environment where everyone feels welcomed and appreciated.
- Create lasting change that will improve the lived experience for marginalized and oppressed populations in the Unity sphere of influence.
Unity is sharing the results publicly in real time.
Progress So Far
Internal changes, including efforts to hire more diverse staff and to train employees in topics such as unconscious bias and privilege, are now listed in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion section of the unity.org website and updated frequently. Blake said he believes these efforts in training and education are paramount to create and sustain an equitable environment where everyone’s experience on campus is positive and uplifting.
Eighty-one percent of the current employees are white with 9 percent Black and 9 percent Hispanic. By comparison, Missouri is 82 percent white, and the United States is 60 percent, which is the Unity goal for its work force. The DEI section lists steps to be taken in the future, including the need for diversity in the leadership ranks where decisions are made.
Many of the efforts are being directed by Alexandra Scott, who was hired full-time as the diversity officer in September 2018. A young, Black professional with a background in DEI, she oversees equity in hiring as well as training for employees.
The internal efforts combine with external changes visible to the global Unity audience. These changes are reflected in whatever Unity World Headquarters offers—its publications, prayer ministry, outreach, and development efforts. Inclusion means being mindful of images used in all publications, websites, and social media, making sure people of color are represented as well as people of different ages, different physical abilities, different cultures, faiths, and sexual orientation.
Board member Rev. Sandra Campbell remembers early in her tenure telling the board and executive team she wanted to see “pictures in publications that look like me.”
“There has been a conscious effort by our CEO and team to be more inclusive,” she says now. “A picture is worth a thousand words and what Unity World Headquarters is doing in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion speaks volumes for putting the fifth principle in action: We are walking our talk, living the truth we know, and making a difference.”
Behind the scenes, Unity has been adding more Black and Hispanic writers to express the teachings through their lived experiences. Some of the articles, podcasts, and videos that have been developed about race are curated in a section of the website called Standing Together, including articles and videos created to honor Black History Month for each of the past three years. It also includes a video statement from Blake in support of the Black community after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in 2020.
The UWH board created a task force to track the DEI efforts at Unity Village in collaboration with a group of Black ministers in the field. They receive reports at least quarterly on progress being made internally and externally.
“We are working hard to find our blind spots,” Blake said. “We are committed to being awake and aware of how privilege works and how unconscious bias shows up. We are dedicated to improving our cultural competency and demonstrating tangible results in the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, internally and externally.”
Rev. Charline Manuel, who first brought the diversity issue to Blake’s attention, said she’s seen changes in the past few years that Black leaders in Unity once considered only a distant hope.
“It is an honor, for the first time in my 25 years as a Unity minister, to say I believe we are finally on the path to make lasting change—from a painful past of systemic racism to practicing the love, oneness, and unity that are at the heart and soul of our Unity teachings.”
Read how Unity is working toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.