W.H.G. Carter and a Step Toward Reconciliation
Adapted from "A Step Toward Racial Reconciliation", UU World, May/June 2002, used with permission.
Reverend W.H.G. Carter was a big man with a big personality. Light-skinned, six-feet-two, a man of charm, energy, imagination, and learning, he towered over his wife, Beulah, who was only five feet tall, and their 15 children. He trained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church, following in his father's footsteps, but never served as a minister in that denomination. He disagreed with many beliefs of the African Methodist Episcopal church, starting with the divinity of Jesus. As an adult, Reverend Carter worked as a photographer, a mural painter, a teacher, a postal worker, a funhouse operator and a real estate speculator. Like his maternal grandfather, William Henry Gray—a free-born African American—Carter was a political activist. He sold a tip sheet to horse race gamblers, kept a roulette wheel in his church (to make the point that gambling in and of itself was not sinful), and operated a friendly neighborhood pool hall (no swearing allowed).
Reverend Carter moved with his wife and children to Cincinnati in 1918. That same year, Reverend Carter founded a Unitarian Church in Cincinnati. Called the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood, it was probably the only African American Unitarian church in America at that time. Along with overseeing the work of the Unitarian church he founded in Cincinnati's West End, he ran four times as a Republican candidate for the city council, although he never won. He founded a fraternal order called the Grand Order of Denizens, whose initials spelled G.O.D, and was a dedicated provider of food, money, clothing, and advocacy to poor blacks in Cincinnati.
At the time, other Unitarians knew about the church and its founder, but turned their backs because the church was African American and poor. Twenty years later, a representative of the American Unitarian Association came to investigate, but the conclusion of the official report was, "I do not recommend Unitarian fellowship for Mr. Carter or subsidy for his movement." In other words, there was no ministerial degree for Reverend Carter, and no money for his church. Shortly afterwards, the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood closed down.
Fast forward 80 years. It's 1998, and the Reverend Sharon Dittmer tells the story of W.H.G. Carter's Church as part of her sermon at the North Hill Fellowship in Cincinnati. Sitting in one of the pews that day was Walter Herz, a church historian. He had never before heard this story of how prejudice had shut down an African American Unitarian congregation, right in his own city, until Reverend Dittmar gave her talk that day. It surprised and intrigued him, but also made him deeply sad.
Leslie Edwards was also surprised to hear about Reverend W.H.G. Carter in a sermon. "That's my grandfather you were talking about," said Mr. Edwards to a hushed congregation during the discussion afterward. "I never thought I'd hear his name mentioned in a Unitarian church." Mr. Edwards was a member of the board of Northern Hills Fellowship.
"We can't let this drop," Mr. Herz said. "We ought to find out more about this family." So Mr. Edwards and Mr. Herz decided to find out more. What they found out sparked an extraordinary act of reconciliation involving two mostly white Unitarian Universalist congregations, five generations of a remarkable African American family, a city scarred by police brutality and race riots, and Unitarian Universalism as a faith.
Mr. Herz and Mr. Edwards shared with their congregation what they had learned about Reverend W.H.G. Carter— what kind of person he was, how he had lived his life, and the whole sad story of what had happened to his African American Unitarian church. Other church members started wondering what to do. The most important part, they decided, should be an apology to the Carter family. They felt that, as a congregation, they wanted to admit what they called the "stain on the Unitarian Movement and on our local Unitarian Churches occasioned by our rejection of Carter's Brotherhood Church sixty years ago."
Mr. Herz and Mr. Edwards's church set up a weekend of activities. They invited more than 100 members of the Carter family. An African American minister, Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed, came down from his Unitarian Universalist church in Toronto and gave a Sunday morning sermon which he called "The Burden of Guilt." Here's part of what he said:
Remembering the past with regret can strengthen the resolve to do the only thing we can do together to shape a more just tomorrow. For in that moment when the one person feels hurt and the other feels sympathy, a bond is established. That connection can be built upon. And as the relationship grows, we can move beyond avoidance, guilt, and self-hatred, and let go of the anger and recrimination to embrace the only things that can sustain us over the long haul— the love of God, which we find in one another, and our shared vision of tomorrow...
Nobody knew if it would really happen, if one of the Carter family members might accept the apology. Then another person rose to the pulpit. She was Starita Smith of Denton, Texas, a mother with two grown children, and a great-granddaughter of W.H.G. Carter. As she began to speak, people still were not sure. She said she was skeptical about "apologies to black people for everything from slavery to neglect of Africa. We read the headlines and we say, 'So what changes now?'" She said she expected more from Unitarian Universalists. She continued:
You are supposed to be the most liberal of the mainstream denominations. It is very meaningful to me that you took the initiative to acknowledge a history that must be embarrassing for you, and to attempt to make amends in the present for what was wrong in the past....
But we must also acknowledge that racial reconciliation, true racial reconciliation, requires commitment.... I hope you will reflect on this weekend often and let it galvanize you. I hope that it will cause you to go beyond the comfortable friendships you have with your black Unitarian friends to attempt to bring honesty, light, and compassion into the thorny arena of race relations beyond the boundaries of your church.
We Carters encourage you to continue to look into your hearts, ask difficult and complex questions, and take action. We accept your apology.
The silence in the sanctuary was broken by a sudden burst of applause. Starita Smith found herself in the arms of the church's minister, Reverend Sharon Dittmar. The minister's black robe enveloped them both. "When the hug seemed to go on a beat or two too long," Starita Smith later wrote, "it dawned on me that she was crying and leaning on me for support."