Sunday, August 27, 2000

Unitarians at history's crossroads

Church researches abolitionist roots.

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was a church founded in 1830, steeped in social activism in a city that would soon after become known as the crossroads of the Underground Railroad.

[photo] First Unitarian Church members (from left) Carol Hull, Patton Davis and Walter Herz examine documents at the Cincinnati Historical Society.
([name of photographer] photo)
| ZOOM |
        Congregants of the First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati know some of their founders participated in one of the greatest protest movements of the pre-Civil War era. Some were staunch abolitionists, people who believed strongly that slavery was wrong.

        Those founding members' names are carefully scripted in a worn book in the Cincinnati Historical Society. But for today's Unitarians, knowing the names is no longer enough.

        They have embarked on a historical and philosophical journey they hope will not only uncover how strongly their predecessors figured in Cincinnati's Underground Railroad role. They also hope they're starting a process of racial reconciliation that might one day spread throughout the Queen City.

        “It has to do with wholeness,” said the Rev. Sharon Dittmar, minister at First Unitarian Church. “We live in a broken society and the most powerful place to address that broken spirit is a congregation.”

        So with the help of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 40 or so of the church's 300 members are working nights and weekends to uncover their past in a project they've named Let Freedom Ring.

        “It's not a guilt trip and it's not to prove we are great people,” said Walter Herz, an organizer of the project and church member. “It's to examine our past and, through examining our past, examine ourselves, who we are as people, how we relate to each other and what we can do better.”

        Were those early members who once met at Fourth and Race streets for fellowship the same people whose bravery, secrecy and self-sacrifice enabled escaped slaves to flee to freedom?

        Or were they worried about the economic decline of their businesses if slavery was abolished?

        Church members hope to answer these questions and offer the collection of stories they piece together to the Freedom Center before it opens to the public on the Cincinnati riverfront in 2003.

        The research process church members develop will eventually become the prototype the Freedom Center will use to help other groups research their histories.

        In uncovering these stories, the Avondale congregation hopes to better define its relationship with the community it serves. Although there is no creed, members of this liberal denomination share the desire to search for religious meaning. They hope to find a little of that meaning as they uncover their collective past.

        “If we start to put the pieces together we'll start to heal ourselves and our communities,” the Rev. Ms. Dittmar said. “(But) before we can go out in the community and extend a hand we need to educate ourselves.”

"Message for all generations'
        Now that church members have their founders' names and others who were church members before the Civil War in a database, the real research can begin. It starts with searching 19th century city directories, collections of church letters and old city street maps.

        To aid the search, the congre gation has contacted African-American churches in Cincinnati whose members were known to have been involved in the Underground Railroad or the abolitionist movement.

        Jointly, the churches hope to uncover how members' lives were linked in working to help escaped slaves on their way to freedom.

        “It's not just a history of people,” said Ed Rider, a First Unitarian Church member. “It's understanding the dynamics of the issue during that time period.

        “I think it has a message for all generations. We can appreciate at that time what it took to be committed to the cause.”

        Congregants recognize that not everything they find will be positive. They may discover some of their predecessors were strong Southern sympathizers.

        “You don't know what you'll find,” the Rev. Ms. Dittmar said. “You also might not like what you find. That's part of the journey, too.”

        Church members plan to use other researchers' information about where abolitionists were known to have lived. Neighborhoods were often a good indication of whether someone was involved in the Underground Railroad, for example. What kind of work a man did could also provide clues.

        “We're told the pork packers and handlers were frequently involved in the Underground Railroad,” said Carol Lloyd, another church member involved in the project.

        Oloye Adeyemon, interim coordinator for the National Park Service's Underground Railroad program in the Midwest, is guiding the volunteers in their research. He is a family history and oral traditions specialist who consults for the Freedom Center.

        Mr. Adeyemon said the group will review census and Sanborn Insurance Co. records as well as local published genealogies. “Most whites were involved secretly because it was dangerous to their businesses and to their person at times,” Mr. Herz explained.

        “Most importantly, they were violating the law, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” he said.

        People were vigorously prosecuted in Cincinnati for violating this law.

        Because of the secrecy, church members will have to seek their roots in letters stored in private collections and oral histories. They hope to find descendants of these founders and their families and talk to them.

From pulpit to action
        After hearing a sermon by the Rev. Ms. Dittmar on race relations more than a year ago, Mr. Herz reflected on the issues of race in his lifetime and soon after helped develop the idea for the project.

        “The whole idea is to use the history of our congregation to study and understand our past and establish a basis for reconciliation with African-Americans,” Mr. Herz said.

        Even before the research is finished, church members will try to right a past wrong.

        They will be hosts to a reconciliation service Jan. 13 and 14 to pay tribute to the Rev. W.H.G. Carter, an African-American who began the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood in Cincinnati in 1918. He is one man the church has researched, although he was never a member of First Unitarian Church.

        The Rev. Mr. Carter established his church when people of different races usually did not worship together. His church was not recognized by the American Unitarian Association and was given no financial support because the meeting place at 732 W. Fifth St. was considered a rowdy part of town. Although educated, Mr. Carter also lacked the proper degree so he was denied fellowship. His congregants were considered “not very intelligent,” according to church records.

        Now, members of First Unitarian Church plan to apologize officially for the way the Rev. Mr. Carter was treated and honor his accomplishments.

        “The reconciliation ceremony, it's not just for W.H.G. Carter,” said Leslie Edwards, Mr. Carter's grandson and a member of Northern Hills Unitarian Church. “It's for people in the community and families and it's for the wounds that need to be healed in Hamilton County.”

The journey continues
        Congregants say that while the formal research for this project will only last three years, what they learn will help them continue a life-long journey to wholeness. And no matter what they find, it's the process itself that's important.

        Carol Hull, an African-American and member since the 1950s, has doubts but continues to hope. This 73-year-old was one of the first African-Americans to join the congregation in the 20th century. In the 19th century there was only one African-American member.

        Ms. Hull said she knows each person working on the project is doing it for a different reason.

        “Some of us pride ourselves on being very liberal and open-minded to diverse situations,” she said. “We just want a little help finding out how we got this way.

        “I'm doing it because I'm African-American and I'm finding pieces of the puzzle I never knew before.

        “It made me feel very proud to come to grips with the plain, gutsy bravery those people had.”

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