The Rev. Dr. A. Knighton Stanley, the longest serving pastor of one of Washington’s most historic Black congregations, died of heart failure Sept. 21 in Atlanta. He was 76.
Alfred Knighton Stanley arrived in Washington in February 1968, two months before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spawned riots along the city’s 7th, 14th and H street corridors. He bore a family legacy of involvement in the Congregational church, the denomination that founded Howard University and later merged into what is now the United Church of Christ.
His father, the Rev. Dr. Joseph T. Stanley, had served as the pastor of the oldest African-American Congregational church in North Carolina. His mother, Kathryn T. Stanley, was the first African-American woman licensed to serve Congregational communities in the Southeastern United States.
Early in his ministry, Rev. Stanley was a pastor and an adviser to many of those who launched the sit-in movement in Greensboro, N.C. As a chaplain at North Carolina A&T State University, he is credited by some as having brought the quarterback on the football team, Jesse L. Jackson, into the Civil Rights Movement.
His Washington church became the Christian home to many prominent doctors, lawyers, judges, educators and community leaders. He served on the District’s Bicentennial Commission, chaired the board of the University of the District of Columbia and served on the board of the Black-owned Industrial Bank of Washington. Yet his church also invested heavily in the future of the city through its children.
“Peoples got the reputation for the place where you wanted to bring kids,” said Washington lawyer Bradley A. Thomas, who grew up in the church, raised his own two children there and whose father, the late Ashton Thomas, was the first Black person to work in the mailroom of the White House.
“Peoples was his first priority,” Thomas said of Stanley. “He was involved in a lot of stuff, but never at the expense of Peoples Church.”
Tony Stanley, as Rev. Stanley was known affectionately, came to Washington as a graduate of Talladega College in Alabama and Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. He had previously served as an assistant pastor at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Detroit.
Peoples Church, in the District’s solidly middle-class Black neighborhood of Petworth, was founded in 1891 by the children and grandchildren of slaves as a spinoff from Asbury United Methodist Church. It was pastored for nearly four decades by the Rev. Arthur Fletcher Elmes.
As senior minister, Rev. Stanley injected himself and his congregation into the lifeblood of the times while overseeing the construction of a major addition to the church, an education center named in Elmes’ memory.
He shared his pulpit with Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, authors James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, educators Benjamin E. Mays and Johnnetta B. Cole , D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington, civil rights leaders King and Dorothy I. Height, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy and D.C. delegates Walter E. Fauntroy and Eleanor Holmes Norton, among others.
His Sunday morning sermons often were rooted in the style and substance of one of his mentors, theologian Howard Thurman, seeking so often to tie Biblical teachings to everyday life, often filtered through Rev. Stanley’s own. The music menu at the church ranged from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to Protestant standards, classic Negro spirituals and 21st century urban gospel.
Church membership during his tenure grew threefold, to about 2,000, and the church built a new sanctuary designed to resemble an African hut. It housed the largest Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs in the District, a drama group, liturgical dancers, an investment club, a credit union, a weekly meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, a cherished pipe organ and several choirs, as well as a regular jazz vespers service. He led the participation of his men’s fellowship in the Million Man March in 1995 and established a regular youth-oriented collaboration with Jewish congregants on the federal holiday honoring King.
He was a member of the board of the Greater Washington United Way and an adjunct professor at the Howard University School of Divinity, as well as an instructor at the Urban Institute in Washington. He also was a vice president of the Council of Churches of Metropolitan Washington.
Rev. Stanley was born in Dudley, N.C. in 1937 and grew up in Greensboro, where his family moved when he was 6. He graduated from Dudley High School, where he also was a well-regarded thespian. He also worked regularly to help support himself and his family.
His marriages to Beatrice Perry and Andrea Young ended in divorce. He is survived by a sister, Ollie Mae Stanley of Bradenton, Fla.; daughters Kathryn Stanley of Atlanta and Taylor Marie Stanley of the District; and son Nathaniel Stanley, also of Washington, D.C.
A memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 10 at Peoples Church on 13th Street NW.