Henry Proctor was a minister, author, and lecturer. He was the first African American pastor of Atlanta’s First Congregational Church, where he served from 1894 to 1920. He was well-known for his race relations, particularly after the 1906 Atlanta race riot, which elevated him to the forefront of the Social Gospel and civil rights movements.
Proctor was born on December 8, 1868, in rural Tennessee, to former slave Hannah Murray and carpenter Richard Proctor. The family lived twelve miles from Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six Confederate veterans. Around the age of 12, Proctor and his family relocated to Fayetteville, Tennessee (population 2,104) in search of better education. Proctor finished the common school course there, briefly taught at a small rural school, and then returned to the city school as principal.
His parents dug ditches and preached sermons to help pay for his education at Fisk University. He graduated from Yale University in 1894 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and was ordained into the Congregational ministry.
Following graduation, Proctor became pastor of Atlanta’s First Congregational Church, the country’s second oldest Black Congregational church. In 1903, Proctor co-founded the National Convention of Congregational Workers Among Colored People with George Washington Henderson, president of Straight University, a Historically Black College in New Orleans, and served as its first president. Clark University conferred the Doctor of Divinity degree on Proctor in 1904.
Following the Atlanta Race Riot in 1906, Proctor and a white attorney formed the Interracial Committee of Atlanta to alleviate remaining tensions. Proctor’s church provided Blacks with amenities such as a library, a kindergarten, an employment bureau, a gymnasium, a ladies’ room, and counseling services.
Proctor traveled extensively in the United States and Europe during his decades of ministry in Atlanta. Proctor’s parishioners presented him with $1,000 for a trip to the Holy Land when the new First Church facilities were completed in 1908. Because he was refused the opportunity to travel with US touring groups due to his skin color, Proctor traveled alone through Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, Italy, and Germany. On May 12, 1933, Proctor died unexpectedly and was buried in Atlanta.