For Penny

A Nashville historical marker for LGBT activist Penny Campbell has been placed in front of her former East Nashville home, 1615 McEwen Ave. (Kristi Iving/Vanderbilt)

Remarks delivered by Ellen Armour, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Feminist Theology and Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at the dedication of the Nashville historical marker in Penny Campbell’s memory on December 8, 2017.

We are here to honor Penny Campbell for her pioneering and courageous activism on behalf of LGBTQI justice — and rightly so. I am here representing VDS where Penny and I were students together and where I now teach. VDS has a well-earned reputation as an institution committed to social justice, so you may think Penny was schooled as an activist there. Actually, that may be true, but not in the way you think. In many ways, she schooled VDS! For one thing, Penny was among the first in the VDS community — students or faculty — to come out publicly as lesbian. Others of us followed in her footsteps over time, and found support there. But she also was very involved in other issues.  VDS’ progressive reputation rested on very public stances it took against racism in the 1960’s and 70’s — occasions where faculty members put their livelihoods on the line, note. But by the late 1980’s, the school had grown somewhat complacent and its African American students (there were no African American faculty, a symptom of the problems) — had had enough.  They rose up in protest (rightly) calling the institution to account for its failures to practice what it preached. Penny and I became part of an interracial student group that worked to come up with ideas for how the School could move forward from this painful impasse — a process that, certainly, was impactful on the institution and on those of us involved in it.

I learned a lot from Penny during that process. She knew — better than I — when to speak, and when to listen. And when she spoke — quietly, insightfully, sometimes wryly — people listened. Because she listened. Really listened, and really heard.

VDS aspires to be a school of the prophets: a place that nurtures in our students a deep and abiding faith that issues in the pursuit of justice. Penny’s activism, like mine, was rooted in her Baptist heritage; one centered on “soul competency” rather than creedal conformity, a position borne not out of a naïve confidence in human goodness, but awareness of the way institutionalized religion often magnifies human fallibility. Penny Campbell’s lifetime of activism and advocacy embodies that faith and we, at VDS, are so grateful to Pippa for bringing Penny to the attention of the Metro Historical Commission, to the Commission for listening to Pippa (and ultimately to so many others) and to Jessica for shepherding us to this wonderful day. It is indeed fitting that you have chosen to honor the life and witness of this remarkable Nashvillian in this way. Thank you.

Ellen T. Armour

Dec. 9, 2017

Dedication of Memorial Plaque for Penny Campbell

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