Dr. John A. Lapp, an alumnus of Eastern Mennonite College who was a history professor at the school during the Civil Rights Movement, died earlier this month at age 90. He also held distinguished careers at Goshen College and Mennonite Central Committee. (Photos courtesy of EMU Archives)

In Memoriam: Dr. John A. Lapp ’54, EMC history professor and ‘major player’ in school desegregation

Dr. John A. Lapp

Dr. John A. Lapp ’54, a history professor at Eastern Mennonite College during the Civil Rights Movement who helped lead the charge for local school desegregation, died on Dec. 5 at the age of 90. 

Remembered by many for his strongly held opinions and his booming belly laugh, Lapp died at the Waterford Crossing retirement community in Goshen, Indiana, where he had been living since 2011. A memorial service in celebration of his life will be held at a later date at College Mennonite Church in Goshen. An obituary with further details is available to read here.

Lapp also held distinguished careers at Goshen College and at Mennonite Central Committee. He was the 2015 recipient of EMU’s Distinguished Service Award.

Born on March 15, 1933, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Lapp was the first of nine siblings. He served as a mentor to his younger sisters and brothers, including Joseph, who would become the seventh president of EMC, and EMU, from 1987 to 2003.

“He was the one who was breaking the ground in education and he was a big reader,” said President Emeritus Joseph Lapp ’66. “He was the one who paid attention to politics, and so he stimulated a lot of discussion in our home.”

John Lapp earned a bachelor’s degree in history from EMC in 1954. He later received a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. 

Life at Eastern Mennonite College

After two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector to the military draft, he returned to EMC to teach as a history professor from 1956 to 1969. During his tenure as a professor, he was active in the Civil Rights Movement and, along with several friends and faculty members, participated in the landmark “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963 where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The professor also was instrumental in the formation of the local chapter of the Virginia Council on Human Relations. The “biracial organization sought to improve interracial relations through support of educational programs, school desegregation, fair employment practices and other related issues” (EMU News).

Following a campus visit from African-American Mennonite activists Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in 1963, John Lapp and fellow EMC history professor Samuel Horst, newly inspired, formed the committee largely responsible for the desegregation of Harrisonburg, Virginia, schools and hotels. Lapp and Harding were “major players in Harrisonburg’s ‘Concern Movement’ that pushed the city schools to desegregate,” according to EMU history professor Mark Metzler Sawin.

Joseph Lapp, who was 10 years younger than John, recalled his time as an EMC student in his brother’s History of Western Civilization class. “He would lecture almost nonstop for a whole hour,” he said. “He held everybody’s attention. And, if you talked to alumni of that time period, they’ll say that was probably their favorite course and that he was their favorite professor.”

Life after EMC

John Lapp left EMC in 1969 with his wife Mary Alice Weber ’55 and their three children to direct the Peace Section at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Akron, Pennsylvania. He later served as executive secretary of MCC from 1985 to 1996. A wonderfully in-depth writeup on his life can be read on the MCC website.

In between those two stints, he served Goshen College for 12 years. Lapp was academic dean of the Mennonite school from 1972 to 1981 and provost from 1979 to 1984. To read more about his impact at Goshen, read their story about him here.

Following his retirement in 1996, he spent 16 years leading a Mennonite World Conference project known as the Global Mennonite History Project. He fundraised and supervised an international team that ultimately produced five separate published volumes on Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America. In addition to that, he taught courses at Bishop’s College in India, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and at EMU’s Lancaster campus. 

Joseph Lapp shared an anecdote about his brother he’s heard others tell around campus. One day when John was teaching a history class in the lower level of Lehman Auditorium, noise from the physical plant kept interrupting him.

“They were pounding and making noise and it was interfering with the lecture. So, he said, ‘OK, we’re all going to go to the administration building’ — and it had these open stairways going up to the second floor; this was the old building, not the current one. So, he had his class sit on those steps and he stood at the center and continued to lecture there for the rest of the period just to make his point about the interference that was occurring.”

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