Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History

Handout 1: The New Orleans Story

Excerpts from "Albert D'Orlando: A Resume," "The New Orleans Story," and "The First Unitarian Church of New Orleans" by Rev. Albert D'Orlando. These documents are located in the "Albert D'Orlando" file at the Andover Harvard Library.

... The First Unitarian Church of New Orleans was born out of the heresy of Parson Theodore Clapp in 1833 (Parson Clapp had formerly been minister of the First Presbyterian Church of this city)....

New growth in the New Orleans church brought with it the problem that every liberal southern church must face; that of racial integration within the congregation itself, as well as in the larger community... Let me emphasize that this became a crucial issue at a time when it was still difficult for southerners to take an open stand on any aspect of racial integration. — from "Albert D'Orlando: A Resume")

First Church, New Orleans, had accepted its first Black member about a year before I arrived on the scene (1949). This was Mr. J.P. Bennett, who came from a long line of Unitarians in Providence, Rhode Island... On arrival in New Orleans he appeared at church one Sunday morning with a letter of recommendation from 25 Beacon Street.

Needless to say, this posed a considerable problem to the membership. At that time the church was not only segregated, it also had direct ties to Civil War ancestors, which, is understandable since the war had ended only 80 years earlier...

... Several months after my first sermon as new minister, two additional blacks appeared in church, together with letters transferring their membership from other Unitarian churches to First Church, New Orleans. One of them was J. Westbrook McPherson, a life-long Unitarian who had come from Phoenix to assume the position of Executive Director of the Urban League Chapter here. The other person was Miss Vernetta Hill, who had come from Omaha, Nebraska, to assume the position of Executive Director of the Black Branch of the Y.W.C.A...

It was the presence of McPherson and Hill that precipitated the ensuing controversy, because whereas Bennett was a shy, retiring sort of person who always sat in the rear pew (as the people here said at the time: "He knew his place, and kept to it"), McPherson and Hill sat wherever they pleased, much to the irritations of the 'die-hards.'" — from "The New Orleans Story")

Albert D'Orlando described the process and problems of integrating the church as follows:

I. Integration of the church. This occurred early in the 1950's, arousing the concern and opposition of some members of the congregation as well as anxieties and tensions of the entire membership.

Problems Involved:

A. The question of granting Blacks full membership, with all rights and privileges. This especially manifested itself by:

a. Opposition to having Blacks sit wherever they chose during Services.

b. Opposition to having them attend after-service Coffee, church dinners and other social activity.

c. Padlocking of the doors in China-closet, so that Blacks would not use Alliance China at social functions.

d. Cancellation of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner by President, after 2 Blacks had purchased tickets for the event.

B. Question of "how many Blacks shall we accept"... with the Board giving serious consideration to drawing a line at a given figure.

C. Opposition of enrollment of Black children in the Church School.

D. Drive to have members reduce pledges to 2 dollars, thus hoping to cripple the budget. — from "The First Unitarian Church of New Orleans"

The outcome of all this was a final report by the Denominational Commission (in 1954 or 1955) pointing out that in many ways we were not as far advanced on this matter as we had thought, and calling on societies throughout the association to move more forcefully on the issues. Meanwhile, our local Committee, with one dissenting vote, issued a report which pointed out to the Congregation that during the two years it had been studying the matter, integration had indeed become a fact in the church. Blacks had joined in considerably larger numbers; they were now participating in every aspect of church life... and were now genuinely accepted by all... with the exception of some of the original protesters... the Congregation, in a special meeting, voted with one dissenting vote... that "Henceforth membership in this congregation is and shall be open to all, regardless of race, point of origin or color of skin." — from "The New Orleans Story"