The Rev. Dr. John Ruffin Manley, a longtime pastor at First Baptist Church and community leader, died Sunday at age 91, church officials said Monday.
A service is planned for 1 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church at 106 N. Roberson St. in downtown Chapel Hill. Manley’s body will lie in state beginning at 10 a.m. at the church. Burial will be in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.
Manley, a native of Murfreesboro, was born in 1925 and graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh with a degree in art and divinity in 1949. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate. He also attended UNC and earned a master’s degree in theology in 1967 from Duke University Divinity School.
In September 1946 First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill called Manley, then a sophomore at Shaw University, to lead its flock. Sixty years later, Manley asked that the tickets to his anniversary banquet be printed with the words “celebrating 60 years and reaching for 70.”
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Manley celebrated that anniversary this year, five years after retiring from a full-time role with the church. He was the church’s longest-serving pastor, continuing to serve since 2011 as its first pastor emeritus.
“The Rev. Dr. Manley was a pillar of our community and an inspiration for the people of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area for more than half of a century,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said. “Our hearts are with the Manley family and the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill.”
Manley was one of the few men around who could make him feel young, said U.S. Rep. David Price. Price and his wife, Lisa, first met Manley when they moved to Chapel Hill in 1973.
He got to know Manley better over the years, Price said, and was asked to speak at the 60th celebration and a few times from the pulpit. Manley was “a very hospitable, warm and welcoming pastor” who lit up the room, he said.
“He had a huge amount of energy,” Price said. “I think he had a very positive outlook on life and conveyed that to everybody around him in a genuine way. He liked people and showed it. He had a way of bringing out the best in people.”
Manley’s first visit to the First Baptist Church pulpit was rocky, the pastor recalled in a 2006 interview. He arrived for the service to find some members had asked another pastor to preach and have dinner at several homes after church. Manley returned the next week, he said, to find an unresponsive congregation.
But on the third Sunday, they responded, and he stayed.
The years brought other hurdles, from a name change – Rock Hill Baptist Church became First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill – that stirred up the white community, to the church’s move in 1953 from a clapboard building on Franklin Street to the brick building at West Rosemary and North Roberson streets.
Two white pastors were fired after letting him use the University Baptist Church baptismal font, Manley noted in 2006.
There were successes, too, as the church grew from 100 members to nearly 800 by the 1970s and expanded its reach to a Head Start program, weekend meals for shut-ins and other community services. Manley added a second ministry to the Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist congregation, where he served for 46 years.
He also led First Baptist Church to develop a close relationship with University Baptist Church that started in 1994 and continues through joint worship services each year and service projects in the community.
Manley’s personal impact on the community spans decades, including six years as the first African-American member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education. His tenure, from 1959 to 1965, oversaw school desegregation.
Manley and board member Henry Brandis stood alone in 1959 when they voted to let Stanley B. Vickers, a black student from Carrboro, transfer to an all-white district school.
While their effort failed, it foreshadowed an Aug. 4, 1961, decision in Vickers v. Chapel Hill City Board of Education, when federal Judge Edwin Stanley ruled that Vickers’ constitutional rights had been violated solely because of his race.
The school board voted on Aug. 29, 1961, to let Vickers and three black first-graders enroll in all-white district schools.
Manley also served as president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, vice president of the National Baptist Convention, president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chapter of the NAACP.
He also founded First Baptist and Manley Estates, which provides affordable housing for low-income seniors on Merritt Mill Road, and was a co-founder of the South Orange Black Caucus.
“The most important project we did together was by far the housing, the Manley Estates,” Price said.
“That was a complicated process,” he said. “They applied successfully for (grant) funds, and I did help with that, but (Manley) was a driving force behind that project, and I’m very happy that that bears his name. It should bear his name because he had so much to do with it.”
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce celebrated Manley’s contributions in 2014 with its Irene Briggaman Lifetime Achievement Award. Manley’s son, John R. Manley II, accepted the award on his father’s behalf.
Manley is survived by his son, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife, Gloria Royster Manley, preceded him in death in 2002.
Funeral arrangements are with Jones Funeral Home.
A service for the late Rev. J.R. Manley will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at the First Baptist Church at 106 N. Roberson St. in downtown Chapel Hill. His body will lie in state at the church from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday.
Burial will be in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.