Joe Zellner's Return to Covenant


In 1966, Joe Zellner (‘70) made Covenant College history by becoming the first African American to attend the institution. Zellner left south New Jersey for Chattanooga, Tennessee to attend the then all-white Christian college.

Fifty years later, the McRae-Zellner Project was created by Berto Dryden (‘19) as part of Covenant’s Multicultural Program. Its aim is to bring African American students together and to pursue racial reconciliation on campus. The project was named after the first male and female African American students to attend Covenant, Joe Zellner and Joan McRae (‘71) — who is now Joan Nabors.

The McRae-Zellner Project, in conjunction with the alumni office, invited Zellner to return to Covenant during Homecoming weekend to speak to a group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni about his experiences at Covenant.

In recounting how he ended up at Covenant, Zellner emphasized the work of a large community of people who supported and aided him in arriving at Covenant and helped keep him there until he graduated.

Zellner used the analogy of a duck gliding through water with its legs frantically kicking under the surface to describe the underlying work others were putting in to help him through Covenant. He noted Rudy Schmidt, Covenant’s registrar at the time, as someone who was quietly working to encourage and support him before he arrived at the college and while he was attending.

“I was chilling,” Zellner said, referring to the ways he profited from the hard work of others at the college. Overall, Zellner remembers his time at Covenant as good.

Later, however, he admitted that it was difficult to be the only African American student.

Not long into the event, Dr. Stephen Kaufmann, who attended Covenant with Zellner, stood up and shared a story as testament to Zellner’s character. Kaufmann recounted an event in which another student used the n-word, and then apologized after recognizing Zellner’s presence in the group. Kaufmann was struck by Zellner’s Christlike acceptance of the student’s apology.

“I think Covenant was all the better for your presence,” Kaufmann said, to which the room applauded.

Zellner responded by saying his personality was not inclined towards anger, but more towards forgiveness, which was how he worked through the many micro-aggressions he faced while at Covenant.

“You just keep moving,” said Zellner.

In response to a question about the pressure students of color feel to educate their white peers about their experiences, Zellner gave a two-part answer. Throughout his education as a teacher and historian, Zellner noted that most of his teachers were white; yet, he learned about African history. You don’t have to learn black history from African Americans, he said.

However, he also recognized the desire and need to share experiences, especially regarding micro-aggressions. Zellner shared an encounter he and his family faced with the police after a neighbor—concerned someone was trying to rob the Zellner’s home—called 911. The ‘suspect’ turned out to be Joe Zellner himself, and the family who called the police said they would not have acted differently if they had to do it again—a statement which was disappointing to Zellner.

Zellner confessed that part of his motivation for returning to Covenant was to learn what the present temperament of Covenant was regarding race and civil rights. As a person highly engaged in politics and committed to the African American struggle for justice, Zellner was concerned that Covenant might be “too concerned with ‘making America great again.’”

Influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s visit to Covenant while Zellner was a student and his book “How Then Should We Live?”, Zellner appealed to the Covenant community to live up to the motto of the college: “In all things Christ preeminent.” Zellner admitted the difficulty of such a charge. However, he encouraged the room to live up to this motto and to daily “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12) and “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).