African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie was born on May 28, 1947, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Ida Murphy Smith Peters and Samuel Edward Smith. McKenzie was the granddaughter of Carl Murphy, editor and publisher of the Afro-American newspapers and Vashti Turley Murphy, her namesake, and one of the twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. McKenzie attended Robert Brown Elliot School, School #18 and Garrison Junior High School; one of the six black students who attended Eastern High School, she graduated in 1965. After spending a summer at the Blair School of Journalism, McKenzie enrolled at Morgan State University where she majored in history; she went on to attend the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, where she graduated earning her bachelor’s degree. After graduation, McKenzie began working for her family newspaper and wrote her own column, “The McKenzie Report.”
McKenzie re-joined Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1976, her family’s original church. In 1978, Cathy Hughes and Dewey Hughes contacted McKenzie about a position at WYCB Radio, and she later hosted an afternoon drive Gospel show in 1981, and eventually rose to the position of program director. McKenzie also worked for WJZ-TV doing a segment on a program called Evening Magazine. McKenzie rotated between working at WYCB, WEBB, and WAYE as an on-air personality, program director, general manager, and later Corporate Vice President of Programming for Mortenson Broadcasting Company.
Made an itinerant deacon in 1981, McKenzie commuted as pastor between Bethel A.M.E. in Cecil County and Ebenezer A.M.E. churches. McKenzie was ordained by the A.M.E. Church in 1984, after which she pastured Oak Street A.M.E. Church. McKenzie went on to earn her masters degree in divinity from Howard University Divinity School in 1985, and became a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. In 1990, McKenzie joined Payne Memorial A.M.E. in Baltimore as pastor. In 1997, a poll of national leaders selected McKenzie for Ebony magazine’s “Honor Roll of Great African American Preachers.” In 2000, while serving as chief pastor of the 18th Episcopal District in southeast Africa, McKenzie was elected and consecrated as the 117th bishop of the A.M.E. Church at their General Council. McKenzie and Bishop Carolyn Tyler Guidry were the first women to become A.M.E. bishops. In 2005, McKenzie again made history as the first woman to become titular head of the A.M.E. Church; she subsequently became presiding prelate of the 13th Episcopal District in Tennessee and Kentucky.
McKenzie was the National Chaplain for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and a lifetime member of the NAACP. McKenzie received honorary doctorates from Howard University, Wilberforce University, Central State University in Ohio, Morgan State University, and Goucher College. McKenzie authored four books: Not Without a Struggle, Strength in the Struggle: Leadership Development for Women, A Journey to the Well and Swapping Housewives.