History Vignette 14: Leona Handler Light
A Sometimes Shadowy Figure
Leona Handler Light (1915-1992) is an impressive and puzzling figure in the history of twentieth-century Unitarian Universalism. She capably served the Western Unitarian Conference in Chicago from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s and then did hazardous duty in Hungary and Transylvania before and during the outbreak of World War II. In Lawrence, Kansas, she revitalized the historic Unitarian society. She then abruptly dropped out of sight for over two decades and apparently re-emerged to take a prominent role in the Black Empowerment Controversy in the late 1960s.
And with raised eyebrow you ask, “Apparently re-emerged?” Reverend Jon Jasper Coffee is almost certain that the “Leona H. Light” of the 1960s was the Leona Handler active in the 1930s and 1940s, but recognizes that more digging needs to be done. All the same, he has uncovered enough information, most of it from primary sources, to sketch a fascinating portrait of someone who served liberal religion capably and at times with great physical courage. The following condenses his findings.
Origins and Early Work
Probably born to a Baltimore family, Leona Handler studied at Tufts College, Tufts Theological School, Boston University, Northwestern University, and the Unitarian Collegium in Kolozsvar, Transylvania. Before becoming office secretary for the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in Chicago, she worked as an assistant in Massachusetts congregations.
Living in Hungary and Transylvania from late 1939 to late 1940, she served as the European Representative of the Unitarian Ministerial Association. Some letters indicate that she was in contact with Waitstill and Martha Sharp (pictured), who worked secretly in Europe to help Jews and others fleeing the Nazis . Articles in Hungarian publications suggest she led worship services, attended meetings in Unitarian churches, and spoke on topics such as “Modern American and European Ideas of Women.” In a 1942 interview with the Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, she said her purpose there was “to study the problems of the people who were in the minority in their social and religious beliefs. No matter what stand these minority groups took on any current issue, they were tossed back and forth between their own government and the Nazi Advance agents, bullied, persecuted, taxed and imprisoned without mercy or justice…”
She relates one incident in which prisoners were released only to be gunned down as they ran toward freedom. The Lincoln Star reports her comment on this incident: "Under the pressure of such horrifying incidents people lose all sense of unity, all belief in country and fellow mankind and are left with only tense suspicion and futile hatred, Miss Handler concluded."
Leona Handler was herself captured and beaten by Romanian authorities and reportedly left for dead on the steps of the US Consulate in Bucharest. She left Europe just a few months before US entry into the war.
“Thank You for Your Diligent and Courageous Service. Here Is Your Bill.”
The men leading the Western Unitarian Conference, after no word from her in months, assumed she was dead and gave her position with the Conference to the spouse of a seminarian in Chicago. Upon her return to the US, she wrote a letter on hotel stationery describing her ordeal. The Western Conference replied that her position was no longer available and suggested she work at the Lawrence, Kansas, congregation, since she owed Lon Ray Call, Executive Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, a significant amount of money for her trip to Europe.
Once in the United States, Handler regularly spoke of the atrocities of World War II and the effects on the people of Hungary, Transylvania, and Romania.
From the summer of 1941 until the fall of 1943, Leona Handler served and revitalized the Unitarian Society of Lawrence, Kansas. This congregation had taken a prominent role in the state’s history, serving as an antislavery center and establishing the first public school, but it had fallen on hard times. The minister had left and the dwindling congregation had appealed to the AUA for financial help in paying a successor.
The AUA responded with a plan to provide a parish worker who would keep the congregation running as a center of “collegiate preaching” for the nearby University of Kansas. A parish worker’s salary would be less than a minister’s. The Society’s members, who were facing possible closure of the congregation, gladly accepted the plan.
Leona Handler was a likely candidate for this position. Her work as office secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference had impressed Lon Ray Call, the Conference’s Executive Secretary, and George G. Davis, the AUA’s Director of Extension. When she visited the Lawrence congregation, she impressed them as well. In a letter to Call (May 5, 1941), congregant Joe Butram wrote, “There has been more and more reason for encouragement. Miss Leona Handler certainly impressed everyone with her ability and energy. Personally, I feel that she could do a great job here.”
Starting in September 1941, Handler administered the society and revitalized it by finding speakers for the coming year and planning participation in the Christian World Forum that would take place in Manhattan, Kansas, the following February. Revitalizing was not easy. The once-prominent Unitarian Society was scarcely known to most citizens and membership was tiny. She also knew that the locally pervasive religious conservatism and growing pro-war sentiment did not provide a promising environment for a liberal congregation.
Nonetheless, in a report to the congregation submitted later in 1941, Handler noted increased attendance as well as participation by University students. Cultivating relationships with local groups, she was regularly asked to speak in the community about her time in Europe and had begun a weekly forum with students. In four months she became a ministerial presence in the Lawrence community, providing administrative oversight, pastoral care, pulpit supply, and public witness. Reasonably enough, she felt her title of parish assistant understated her role and asked to have it changed to parish director. Her request was declined on the grounds that the AUA staff directory had already gone to the printer.
In 1943 Handler and other Society members wrote letters addressing racial discrimination at the University, including University cooperation with a Red Cross policy that required labeling of any blood from “Negro” donors. Handler alerted Frederick May Eliot, president of the AUA, regarding the matter. She also organized faculty members to petition for rejection of the policy. The congregation’s youth apparently shared her values. On March 4, 1943, an order of service for ‘Youth Sunday’ sets racial equality as the discussion topic and includes the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” University students conducted that evening’s vesper service and chose “The Race Question” as the theme.
Leona Handler Drops from Sight
In April 1943 Handler hinted in a letter to Curtis Reese, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, that she might change careers, and suggested that something might “develop to take [her] to Chicago in the fall.” She expected the congregation to continue with or without her leadership. In another letter she told Reese she felt some urgency about gaining credentials as a Unitarian minister. Later, Reese wrote to a colleague of his surprise that Handler had departed for Berkeley, California, without telling anyone in the congregation of her intentions. After she left, the congregation called Homer A. Jack, who attempted to revive it. He left at the end of summer 1944 and the Unitarian Society dissolved soon afterwards.
There is one more mention of Handler, in the AUA’s Christian Register, for this decade: “Miss Leona C. Handler, formerly parish assistant in The Unitarian Society of Lawrence, Kansas, was married to Lieutenant Jacob S. Light, U.S. Army, on August 20  in Denver Colorado.”
Aside from the failure to give notice, Handler’s course is understandable. Working for the Western Conference and then reporting to Boston, she may have gathered that female candidates for ministry were not warmly encouraged. Her work in Lawrence had been rewarded with a demeaning job title and low compensation, around a hundred dollars bimonthly . In that era, a woman contemplating marriage was expected to drop her career, no matter how promising or distinguished. Handler had lived in Europe as Nazis were advancing, had risked and nearly lost her life there with apparently little acknowledgement, and had done successful but ill-compensated work to build a liberal congregation in a racist and politically reactionary town on the Plains. As she faced her thirtieth birthday, the offer of marriage from Lieutenant Light may have looked like a needed and timely change of direction.
Did Leona Reappear in 1967?
During the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Black Empowerment Controversy, which began in late 1967, a Leona H. Light is listed as a founding member of the group Full Recognition and Funding for the Black Affairs Council, or FULLBAC. She is also listed as the secretary of Supporters of Black Unitarians for Radical Reform, or SOBURR. “The secretary of SOBURR, Mrs. Leona H. Light of Beverly Hills, California and Ann Raynolds of Springfield, Vermont would both be designated ‘temporary Co-chairmen’ [sic] in company with David B. Parke of Philadelphia and the Rv. Jack Mendelsohn of Boston.”
The two Leonas are probably the same person. More research would confirm this and make her role better known. More research might also provide some context for the Western Unitarian Conference’s strange-seeming response to her near-martyrdom in Europe.
Who will take the challenge?
- “1855 - Unitarian Church.” 2016. Lawrence, KS.
- “Amerikai Vendeg Oklandon.” 1939. Unitarius Kozlony.
- “Az 1939. Evi Fotanacs.” 1939. Unitarius Kozlony.
- Baer, Florence. 1941a. “Memo For the Files December 19,1941.”
- 1941b. “Memo to George G. Davis April 15, 1941.”
- Butram, Joe. 1941. “Letter to Lon Ray Call May 5, 1941.”
- Call, Lon Ray. 1941a. “Letter to George G. Davis April 5, 1941.”
- 1941b. “Report to Committee on Church Maintenance and Unitarian Extension March 5, 1941.”
- “Church People in the News.” 1944. The Christian Register 123: 425.
- Davis, George G. 1941a. “Letter to Leona Handler September 15, 1941.”
- 1941b. “Letter to Leona Handler September 2, 1941.”
- 1941c. “Memo to Mr. Fritchman April 30, 1941.”
- Dreisziger, Nándor. 2009. “Transylvania in International Power Politics during World War II.” Hungarian Studies Review XXXVI: 1–2.
- Gard, Rachel. 1941. “The Unitarian News-Letter.” Lawrence, KS.
- Handler, Leona C. 1941a. “Letter to Florence Baer December 11 1941.”
- 1941b. “Letter to George G. Davis August 29, 1941.”
- 1941c. “Letter to George G. Davis September 11, 1941.”
- 1941d. “Report on the Unitarian Society of Lawrence, Kansas November 23, 1941.”
- 1941e. “Second Letter to George G. Davis September 11, 1941.”
- 1943a. “Letter to Curtis Reese April 12, 1943.”
- 1943b. “Letter to Curtis Reese April 16, 1943.”
- 1943c. “Letter to Dr. Fredrick May Eliot April 14, 1943.”
- “In the News.” 1941. The Christian Register. Boston: American Unitarian Association.
- “Kulturünnepély Sft.-Gheorghe-N.” 1940. Unitarius Kozlony.
- Lawrence Journal World. 1943. “Unitarian Church,” September..
- Lincoln Star. 1942. “Nazi Pressure in Rumania Was Thing of Horror.”
- “News of Churches and Church People.” 1940. The Christian Leader. Boston: American Unitarian Association.
- Office of the President of Meadville Theological School. 1941. “Letter to Florence Baer December 20, 1941.”
- “Order of Service for Youth Sunday March 14, 1943.” 1943.
- “Order of Service for Youth Sunday Vesper Service March 14th 1943.” 1943.
- Reese, Curtis. 1943a. “Letter to George Davis September 22, 1943.”
- 1943b. “Letter to Leona Handler April 13, 1943.”
- 1943c. “Letter to Leona Handler April 9, 1943.”
- Seaburg, Alan. "Homer Alexander Jack." Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, an on-line resource of the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society.
- Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice. 1994. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
- University Daily Kansan. 1943. “Negro Blood Designated - Red Cross."