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Remembering those who have gone before us...

Retired United Methodist Missionary, Josephine Beckwith, Dies at 100

By Barbara Wheeler

Note: This article was written after interviews with Ms. Beckwith and others upon the celebration of her 100th birthday, April 22. Ms. Beckwith passed away May 26.

Josephine Beckwith, 100, served the church for 32 years as a Home Missionary, but didn't define her work as a calling.

"I've never felt called to do anything," Ms. Beckwith said. "I just wanted to do something. And I went ahead and did it."

This simple philosophy took Ms. Beckwith from her birthplace in Minneapolis, Minn., across the United States to serve at six United Methodist-related community centers in five states: Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Ms. Beckwith was the first African American executive director of the Bethlehem Center in Fort Worth, Texas, beginning her work there in 1960. She oversaw the merger of Bethlehem Center with two other community centers to create United Community Centers, Inc., a mission institution of the United Methodist Church. She retired from there in 1973.

Touching lives

Now, at 100, Ms. Beckwith's service and work in the church are seen in the lives she has touched.

"Ms. Beckwith played an important role in my life because I grew up at Bethlehem Center," said Tarrant County Commissioner Roy C. Brooks of Fort Worth. "The important thing was Ms. Beckwith knew all of her children at Bethlehem Center. She wanted us to know the right way to do things."

Mr. Brooks presented Ms. Beckwith with a resolution from Tarrant County, Texas, in honor of her 100th birthday, April 22, that congratulated her and honored her tradition of working with children in the community.

"I am one of her children," Mr. Brooks said.

Juanita Rigsby of Fort Worth was hired by Ms. Beckwith shortly after she arrived at Bethlehem Center in Fort Worth in 1960. Ms. Rigsby worked with Ms. Beckwith until she retired. "Ms. Beckwith is a highly intelligent woman and very concerned about people," she said. "She worked with all the people in the community and knew all the people in the community."

Ms. Rigsby went on to start a satellite center related to Bethlehem Center and also worked at United Community Centers, Inc. She said Ms. Beckwith was like family. "My three children still call and talk with Ms. Beckwith."

Pat Hardt of Waco, Texas, met Ms. Beckwith when she served as a US-2 young adult missionary with at Bethlehem Center from 1959-1961. Ms. Hardt came from an active Wesley Foundation at Southern Illinois University and after many mission trips to poverty-stricken communities in the United States, Ms. Hardt decided to become a US-2.

The example of laywomen serving the community, as Ms. Beckwith did, and the support for the center from the Woman's Society of Christian Service of the Methodist Church inspired Ms. Hardt to be involved in United Methodist Women.

"It was because of my experience at Bethlehem Center that I joined United Methodist Women," she said. Ms. Hardt is now the president of Waco District United Methodist Women.

Racial barriers

Ms. Beckwith encountered many racial barriers as she went through life. She was engaged in litigation in order to be admitted to National College in Kansas City, Mo. In 1940 she became the first black student to graduate from any college in Missouri.

Ms. Beckwith also found it difficult to be admitted to graduate school in the 1950s because of the color of her skin. She was not admitted to Scarritt College in Nashville, Tenn., when she first enrolled because state law did not permit college admission of African Americans. Scarritt's board of trustees later voted to admit African Americans, and Ms. Beckwith applied again and enrolled in at Scarritt College in 1956.

Ms. Beckwith was once asked to speak at a church in a rural community in Oklahoma. She said the church contacted her before her visit and uninvited her, saying they would need to pray about it. Ms. Beckwith was then re-asked to come. When she was driving into town she passed a sign that said African Americans were not allowed. Undiscouraged, Ms. Beckwith continued on to the church to speak.

Ms. Beckwith was a member of St. Andrew's United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and United Methodist Women at the church, and a charter member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Barbara Wheeler is an executive secretary for communications with the Women's Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

Last Updated: 04/19/2010

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