A couple months ago, a UU minister from Grafton stopped to take photos of a white clapboard church in a sleepy Massachusetts town. He described the place as “picturesque and postcard-ready,” an echo of my parents’ description of Mendon and the white clapboard Unitarian church they first saw in the 1940s.
Rev. Lewis McGee and racism then
My parents’ visit was in preparation for my father’s upcoming appointment to the pulpit in Mendon, MA; coincidentally, this was around the time Rev. Louis McGee, a black minister, was denied his own pulpit within the Unitarian church. I still recall my father’s outrage over that travesty.
Still, compared to other churches of the day, and especially to society at large, the Unitarians, and their close friends the Universalists, were often progressive in their dealings with race. African Americans counted among the charter members of Universalist societies as far back as 1785, and shortly after the Civil War, the first African Americans were admitted to Meadville Theological School. But the Unitarians and Universalists didn’t always get it right. Some Unitarians churches continued to turn away black members, and a few African Americans were refused fellowships.
Rev. McGee countered this show of discrimination by establishing the inter-racial Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago; in an act of solidarity, Kenneth Patton, a white minister, “resigned” from the white race. Ken happened to be a friend of my father’s, a firebrand who agitated for the same kinds of change that Ray supported. They both despised discrimination. When we lived in Mendon, Ray wiggled out of attending the popular town minstrel show put on by the fire department; he never expressed why, but I suspect it was in reaction to the show’s blatant racism.
Ken was considered more radical, and he eventually became a major figure in liberal religion.
Rev. Daniel Gregoire and racism now
Society has come a long way since the days of minstrel shows and casual racism, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Daniel Gregoire, the UU minister who this past May snapped the photos of the picturesque church in Massachusetts, writes of the unsettling experience of having two police cars show up on that sunny day. Rev. Gregoire is a black man. The police didn’t question him, but sat in their patrol cars, parked squarely behind his car on the quiet street, and observed him.
Yes, we still have a way to go before racism—and discrimination of all kinds—is eradicated. The good news is, UU is actively addressing the kind of stubborn, ugly remnants of racism Gregoire addresses in his article. In June, a pre-General Assembly workshop entitled “Undoing Racism,” nudged the door open a bit farther, encouraging the participants to take a frank look at racism today. Discussion went beyond the outward acts of whites discriminating against blacks, and touched on the internal damage that’s done when the culture of racism seeps into the black consciousness, polluting an individual’s view of him or herself as “less than.” The workshop was presented by The People’s Institute, a group that promotes community organizers in their fight against oppression.
With events of the past few years shining a needed spotlight on the issue of discrimination, I hope we’ll see more conversations like these happening.