Eleanor Roosevelt met with all races at All Souls Unitarian
by W. Winston Skinner
Eleanor Roosevelt grew up in New York but spent much of her adult life in segregated Southern cities. She was first lady longer than any other person — living in the egalitarian White House that was firmly situated in the middle of Jim Crow era Washington, D.C. Her husband’s rural retreat — where he sought hope after contracting polio — was at Warm Springs in Meriwether County.
En route to Warm Springs, the Roosevelts often stopped in Newnan. Stories are still told about Mrs. Roosevelt shopping for basic medical supplies at Lee-King Drug Store on Newnan’s court square.
At a meeting in Baltimore — rather than sit on the “white” side of a segregated hall, Mrs. Roosevelt placed her chair in the middle of the aisle. In Meriwether County, she chose less strident ways of reaching across the color divide.
Legend says she distributed some of the first school milk cartoons to children at a black school in Meriwether, and a school building for African-American children there was named for her.
In Washington, the first lady faced the thorny challenge of finding a way to meet with people of different races around a single table. She found a place in the dining room at All Souls Unitarian Church, one of the city’s oldest congregations.
“At that time, there weren’t that many places where mixed groups could meet,” observed Molly Freeman, a member and archivist at All Souls. “We’re a Southern city — way below the Mason-Dixon line.”
The church remains active today and has a multi-racial congregation. In the Roosevelt era, all the members at All Souls were white, but the facilities were integrated — far ahead of the law and custom.
Laurence C. Staples in his authoritative 1970 book, “Washington Unitarianism,” wrote of the 1930s-1940s time period: “For a number of years, All Souls dining room was one of the few places in Washington where racially integrated groups were served, bringing Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and other VIPs to the church on a number of occasions.”
The pioneering first lady’s face is among those depicted in a mural in the gymnasium at All Souls today. There is little information about her visits to the church in the Jim Crow era, but the congregation’s progressive impulses have been part of its existence since the very beginning.
A. Powell Davies, who was senior minister at All Souls for 13 years starting in 1943, was a colleague of Mrs. Roosevelt in several projects. George N. Marshall, in his 1990 biography, “A. Powell Davies and His Times, ” noted Mrs. Roosevelt, Davies, Chester Bowles and Allan Haywood were among those who are part of a fundraiser for American for Democratic Action in Washington in 1947.
Davies also was toastmaster for the ADA’s third annual convention banquet. “Again Eleanor Roosevelt was chair with Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, as the featured speaker,” Marshall wrote.
Originally known as First Unitarian, All Souls has had three buildings since its founding. The current building — which includes a majestic sanctuary and an array of hallways that lead to meeting areas and offices — was built in 1924. William Howard Taft, the only person to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court, was an active member at All Souls, and his funeral was held at the church in 1930.
Formally organized in 1821, the congregation’s first building was designed by one of its founding members, Charles Bulfinch, the second architect of the Capitol.
A 1,000-pound bell — placed in the tower of the original church — was cast by Joseph L. Revere, the son of Paul Revere in 1822. The bell was a signal for the entire city as it grew during the next several decades. In 1859, the bell was sounded after the killing of abolitionist John Brown as Harper’s Ferry.
The ringing of the bell reflected the predominant view of the Unitarians in Washington but not of their Southern-leaning neighbors. City officials made other plans for community-wide bell notifications thereafter.
Among the early pastors was Samuel Longfellow, brother of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ralph Waldo Emerson filled the pulpit one Sunday in 1827.
Starting in 1862, the church building was used as a military hospital, much as churches in Newnan were utilized in the same period. Unitarian parishioners volunteered their services in caring for the wounded soldiers.
During that time, church services were held in the U.S. Senate chamber. British actress Fanny Kemble gave readings from Shakespeare at First Unitarian during the Civil War, and William Henry Channing, the church’s pastor, served as chaplains of the U.S. House of Representatives during the winter of 1863-1864.
The second church building — at 14th and L Streets — was completed in 1877. At that time, the congregation took a vote to change the name to All Souls Church Unitarian. Sen. Ambrose Burnside, who had been a Union general, led the dedication service for the building in 1878. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass attended services in the second church building.
A Sunday school for black Washingtonians met at the church as early as 1867.
Taft laid a cornerstone at 16th and R Streets for a new All Souls in 1913. World War I intervened and construction was delayed. Eventually, the decision was made to build on the current site.
Organizations in the church often had national and international leaders as speakers. Mohandes Gandhi spoke to the church’s Twentieth Century Club, a women’s group. Princess Nour Hamada Beg, described in the Women’s Alliance minutes as “the outstanding feminist of Syria,” spoke to that group in 1934. In 1951, the Women’s Alliance “wove mittens” and donated yarn “for making articles of clothing for Korean children.”
The group also toured Goodwill Industries, gave a Japanese Tea as a fundraiser for the Unitarian Church of Japan, and made hospital gowns for the Red Cross.
Paul Johansen, director of the United Nations International Center in Washington, spoke to the Women’s Alliance in 1953. “He spoke on the subject, ‘Partnership for Peace.’ A question-answer period followed the talk,” according to the minutes.
Efforts to integrate the Metropolitan Police Boys Club at the church was a focal point in the congregation’s efforts at racial equality. The club had been meeting when church leaders suggested — in 1951 — that they allow participation regardless of race.
“They didn’t want to — and the left,” Freeman said. “It is often said we kicked them out.”
All Souls was a gathering point for participants during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. James Reeb, the church’s assistant minister, died of injuries he received during a Civil Rights protest in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
The church installed the first African American senior minister to serve in a large Unitarian church, David Eaton, in 1969. Eaton actively supported the Wilmington 10, and the church allowed its facilities to be used for law school classes for students who were involved in social justice issues and for the Green Door, an outpatient center for people with mental challenges.
At the end of Eaton’s pastorate, the congregation was almost exactly half black and half white.
Outreach to the community is part of the All Souls’ tradition. Freeman recalled the establishment of a weekend breakfast for the homeless. “All the places that fed people were closed on the weekend,” she noted.
One of Washington’s first public birth-control clinics in the city was established at the church. The sanctuary was the location of the signing ceremony for the city’s marriage equality legislation in 2009.
Robert M. Hardies, All Souls’ current senior minister, is the first gay clergyman to lead the congregation. His first sermon at All Souls was on Sept. 9, 2001, and the service held at the church after the terrorist attacks two days later was covered by National Public Radio. The church also was the site of a memorial service for two Washington postal workers who died from anthrax exposure.
All Souls continues to have a wide range of ministries including a program for English-language students in the surrounding diverse neighborhood.