The Thomas Jefferson Ball: Reflections and Reconciliation
General Assembly 2009 Event 2028
Presenters: Rev. Hope Johnson, Rev. Barbro Hanson.
In 1993, General Assembly (GA) was held in Charlotte, NC, in the Thomas Jefferson District. The GA Planning Committee decided to hold a Thomas Jefferson Ball, inviting delegates to attend the ball in period costume. (Although he never joined a Unitarian church, Thomas Jefferson is often claimed by Unitarian Universalists as an early North American Unitarian.)
Some delegates to the 1993 General Assembly questioned the propriety of the Thomas Jefferson Ball. These delegates, including African Americans and their white allies, read a statement in the first plenary session of the 1993 GA, protesting the event. The ensuing conflict sent ripples throughout Unitarian Universalism, raising awareness that different groups of people could have very different perceptions of the same event.
Rev. Hope Johnson, then a lay leader in the Community Church in New York City, and Rev. Barbro Hansson, then a lay leader in, and president of, the Thomas Jefferson District, were both in the middle of the conflict. In this GA presentation, they shared how they were able to confront their diverse perspectives and reconcile with each other.
Johnson told how she and other members of Community Church in New York City found out about the Thomas Jefferson Ball before General Assembly began. Johnson said her sister asked, "Well, what am I supposed to wear [to the Ball]?" In other words, should African Americans go dressed as slaves, "in rags and chains"? The delegation from Community Church decided to organize a protest of the Ball and began contacting other congregations.
Upon arriving at GA, Johnson said she met with the African American Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministers (AAUUMM) and helped draft a statement to be read at plenary. In the end, she was the one chosen to actually read the statement. She said she rewrote the statement to make it less negative. "I headed for plenary," said Johnson, "and when I delivered the statement, you could have heard a pin drop. And you know that saying, about your legs turning to jelly? I remember experiencing that feeling for the first time in my life."
Meanwhile, Hansson, the District President, was excited by the prospect of having the 1993 GA occur in her home district (although she was not involved in planning for the Ball or other GA programming specifically). When Johnson delivered the statement protesting the Thomas Jefferson Ball, Hansson was taken by surprise.
"When Hope walked to the microphone in front of [then-UUA Moderator] Natalie Gulbrandsen," Hansson said, "Yes, you could hear a pin drop. And as that pin dropped all kinds of things began to churn inside me, because I heard what Hope was saying." As president of the Thomas Jefferson District, Hansson knew she had to respond in her capacity as a lay leader. When she saw Leon Spencer, an African American man who served as UUA Trustee from the Thomas Jefferson District, walk up on stage to meet with Gulbrandsen to help plan a response to the protest, Hansson knew she had to participate as well. She said to herself, "’You are a leader, you are responsible, you can do something.’ And as I thought those words, I went up the risers and went up to Leon and placed myself right next to him."
Thirteen people had gathered on the stage around Gulbrandsen, including both Hansson and Johnson. Gulbrandsen asked that group to go and talk the situation over together and return in an hour to report back to the plenary session.
"So, how do you fix something like that in 60 minutes?" said Johnson. "I have to say it was a difficult place to be." As one of the thirteen people charged with developing a response, Johnson said, "I realized that I had done something awful in terms of [being the president of] the district that was hosting this."
This group of thirteen came to the conclusion that the Thomas Jefferson Ball should be held as planned and that individual delegates should attend or not attend according to their individual consciences. At the end of their 60-minute deadline, they reported this to the plenary session.
"And then we moved on from there," Hansson said. "The drama was finished for the moment." However, she noted that the repercussions continued for a long time thereafter.
Hansson and Johnson shared their own personal story of reconciliation. At the end of the 1993 GA, they wound up talking for three hours together in Hansson's hotel room, getting to know each other as people. "We became friends," Johnson said. "We had so much in common. We each were single parents. We each had a daughter. We each came from someplace else: I am from Jamaica," Johnson said, and Hansson is originally from Sweden.
After GA was over, Hansson sent Johnson a greeting card showing two girls sitting together on a swing; one of the girls on the card was white and one of the girls was black. Johnson said, "And that card I have with me always."
"That GA, in addition to paving the way for Hope and me to become friends, or actually sisters, also was the time when I felt called to ministry," Hansson said. "I suspected some day that Hope would do the same." Indeed, Johnson also became a Unitarian Universalist minister.
"So that is our story of how our paths intersected at a critical time," said Hansson, "a time of conflict and chaos. We found that we are very much alike."
Johnson said that their friendship continues to this day. "And so it [their friendship] continues and it is our joy to be here," said Johnson. "As sisters."
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley and Deborah Weiner.