Once accused of racial insensitivity, Papa John’s founder gives money to black Baptists

Papa John’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter, who left the pizza company last year amid controversy over comments criticized as racially insensitive, recently donated $1 million to Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black school with ties to Baptist groups including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

According to local media, Schnatter said Thursday that part of the money will go to build a lodging facility at a retreat center owned by the National Baptist Convention of America, a predominantly African-American denomination that moved its headquarters from Dallas to the Simmons College campus in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2017.

John Schnatter, former face of the Papa John’s pizza empire, announces plans for the John H. Schnatter Family Foundation to provide capital to build a three-story lodging facility on the campus of the National Baptist Convention of America’s retreat center. (NBCA photo)

“This donation is not about me,” Schnatter reportedly said at the convention’s 2019 annual session held Sept. 8-13 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “It’s about the lives that are going to be impacted, the communities that will be transformed and the young people who will go to school and grow to be great businessmen, businesswomen, doctors, engineers and teachers.”

Schnatter, who began the 5,000-store chain in 1984 by installing a pizza oven in his dad’s tavern in Jeffersonville, Indiana, got in hot water last year after blaming poor sales on the National Football League’s handling of players kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of racial injustice.

Forbes magazine reported in July 2018 that Schnatter had casually used a racial slur during a conference call about how to avoid future PR problems. Schnatter resigned as chairman of the Papa John’s board the same day. The next week Forbes followed up with a report describing a “toxic culture” at Papa John’s that included spying on workers and sexually inappropriate conduct.

Schnatter originally admitted to using “inappropriate and hurtful language” regarding race but in recent days told Fox Business his comments were “misconstrued” and “benign,” and accused business rivals of using race to “steal the company.”

Samuel Tolbert, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, on Thursday thanked Schnatter for the funding, commenting “this is truly how you do better.”

The 3.5 million member National Baptist Convention of America purchased property near Louisville in 2017 for what was described as the only retreat and conference center in Kentucky run by African Americans.

“Some folks told me that’s the wrong city,” Tolbert, pastor of Greater Saint Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, recalled conversations this week in Oklahoma. “Why would we go to Louisville with a little college with less than 500 students? Why would we put our headquarters there? Well, God wanted it there.”

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a predominantly white group with about 1,800 churches, works through its Kentucky chapter with Simmons College a partnership called Empower West aimed at economic development in Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods. National CBF leaders recently took part in a program sponsored by Simmons College at St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what is today the United States of America.

Leaders of Empower West recently asked Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – a historic school owned by the Southern Baptist Convention that has acknowledged it once benefited from slavery – to donate part of its endowment to Simmons College as a gesture of repentance. Seminary officials said it would be inappropriate to give away money donated by Southern Baptists to support an institution outside the convention’s control.


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