Search through own heritage leads evangelist to story about enslaved mixed-race pastor

If local school district officials knew then what Sammy Tippit knows now, he might not have been allowed to attend Istrouma High School.

Tippit, 66, is a world-renowned evangelist who grew up in Baton Rouge and now lives in San Antonio. He was a prominent Istrouma High student government leader and proudly represented the Indians at statewide high school meetings and debates.

“I truly am an Istrouma Indian,” Tippit said with a big smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes. And he means that in more ways than one.

As a youthful “Jesus freak” in the late 1960s, he boldly preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ in dangerous nightclubs on the west side of the Mississippi River. He was arrested and deported from Communist Romania and risked arrest in the Soviet Union for preaching in underground churches in the 1970s and ’80s.

He’s preached in 80 countries and filled some of the world’s largest stadiums in South Africa, Ethiopia and Brazil’s MaracanĂ£, where the World Cup Final will be played this summer.

Just a few months ago, Tippit said, he preached in Pakistan where a large portion of the 10,000-member audience — many of them Muslim men, — prayed for salvation in Jesus Christ. A suicide bomber, perhaps on his way to the service, exploded a few blocks away.

But one of Tippit’s most unnerving experiences came 10 years ago when a man in Portugal, researching his own family roots, told him they were related by Native American blood going back to Revolutionary War times.

“All of a sudden I didn’t know who I was,” Tippit said during an interview at a local coffee shop. “I have fair skin and blue eyes, but my bloodline is a mixture of English, Native American and African.”

“I did an ethnic background testing and basically came up with (that) I am 1/32nd African,” Tippit said. “I have sub-Saharan African DNA.

“I should have been classified as a colored person — not as a white person,” Tippit said with a smile. “By law, I should not have been allowed to attend Istrouma High School because (then) it was segregated.”

Baton Rouge schools were officially desegregated in 1965, the year Tippit graduated, according to school district officials.

Exploring the past

Tippit said his genealogical investigation also revealed that his third- and fourth-generation grandparents were close friends with the Rev. Joseph Willis, a mixed-race preacher who founded the Baptist movement in frontier Louisiana 200 years ago.

Tippit details the Willis story in a recently published history-based novel he co-authored with Randy Willis, a Joseph Willis descendant, entitled “Twice a Slave.”

Tippit traced his own family — and that of Joseph Willis, the son of a prominent white farmer and his Cherokee slave/wife — back to the border area of North and South Carolina, where some mixed-race families took refuge from discrimination.

Joseph Willis, who despite being a slave, fought the British as a Carolina Patriot with Gen. Francis Marion, Tippit writes in the book. After the Revolutionary War, Willis was still persecuted by his own white family, so he migrated to western Mississippi and then into Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

A time for change

“I was a racist (growing up),” Tippit said, “and when I came to Christ my whole racial attitude changed.”

He was a freshman at LSU when evangelist James Robison spoke at Istrouma Baptist Church, “and God touched my life,” Tippit said.

Two nights later, he said he “surrendered to the ministry.”

Tippit transferred to Louisiana College to become a preacher. His father passed away in 1968, and he transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University, in Hammond, where he met his wife, Debara, better known as “Tex.”

They got married and he was ordained and left school to be a “Jesus Movement” street preacher.

Tippit said he and seven friends in 1970 took turns pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with New Testaments from Monroe to Washington, D.C., and gave them away along the grueling trip, which took several months.

Tippit passed out gospel tracts and preached on the gritty streets of Chicago. He said he was illegally arrested by corrupt policemen at the behest of nightclub owners, who were losing customers to Christ.

Decades later, Tippit said he met a missionary pastor’s wife in the Philippines who told him she was a go-go dancer in one of those clubs and became a Christian after reading one of those tracts.

In 1972, Tippit said he and his friends carried a large cross to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Orlando, Florida, and witnessed to hundreds of delegates.

A few months later he said he slipped through the Iron Curtain into East Berlin with a few “Jesus freak” friends to the 1973 World Communist Youth Conference, where they witnessed to hundreds of atheist youth. That small group grew into a ministry to Eastern Europe where during the 1990s Tippit said they filled stadiums in the former communist countries.

“We really keyed in on what I call ‘the difficult areas of the world’ where there was war, where there was persecution of Christians,” Tippit said. “Few people have heard of us here in the States because we don’t do a lot of public relations.

“We went into a stadium in a city in Siberia that had been built by the slave labor of Christians — and it was packed,” he said. “When I gave the invitation, 95 percent of them gave their hearts to Christ. It was amazing!”

That event, and many others detailing his preaching of reconciliation and forgiveness in the genocide-ravaged Rwanda and apartheid-scourged South Africa, are detailed in Tippit’s life story, “God’s Secret Agent,” the first book written by Jerry B. Jenkins, now famous for the “Left Behind” series.

Tippit has written 14 books, and “Twice a Slave” is his most recent work.

“I wrote it as a novel because there are so many gaps when you deal with slavery,” he said. “There are too many unknowns.”

Historical records at Louisiana College show that Joseph Willis and others founded the Louisiana Baptist Association in 1818.

The Louisiana Baptist Convention, with more than 650,000 members attending more than 1,600 churches, is to a great extent an outgrowth of that early association. Calvary Baptist Church of Bayou Chicot, reportedly the first Baptist church in Louisiana and founded by Willis and ancestors of Tippit, celebrated its 200th anniversary in November 2012. (Some churches east of the Mississippi River may have been founded about the same time but were in the Florida Parishes, not considered part of Louisiana at the time.)

For more information on Sammy Tippit’s ministry, visit sammytippit.org. For more information on Joseph Willis, visit josephwillis.net.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Saturday, June 14, 2014, to reflect that Calvary Baptist Church of Bayou Chico was founded by Willis and ancestors of Tippit. The caption to a photo provided Sammy Tippit also was changed to correctly identify one of the people shown as Leo Humphrey.