Moving Forward in Truth: What’s Race Got To Do With It??

“Race is not a southern or northern or American problem.
Race is a universal and human problem. If we are to be true
to our Christian principles, we need to reach the point in our
spiritual maturity where we see people without regard for
racial factors.”

–Bishop Milton Richardson, 1966

What About Race
What is it about race (that keeps us running)?

What is it about race that is such a bother
That keeps us at odds with one another
Keeps us running, not towards,
but from each other
and never reaching the finish line?

Race is
The lie that divides
And truth about “the other” hides.
A distortion of reality
It leads us to despise
One another
Or at the least look upon with mistrusting glances or glaring side-eyes
Convincing us we must take sides
So that neither peace nor equity resides
On either side.

Race is
The lie that divides
A distortion of reality
Denies our liberty
Keeps us in captivity
Distances us and hinders our proximity
So that we cannot or will not
Look without suspicion or favorably
On those who “do not look like me”
Fearing that we might
In them
Some of ourselves see.
Oh no! That can never be me
In the faces, skin, or circumstances
of “the other”
Oh no! I can’t get too close. Stay too long. Look too intently. Care too deeply.
Or surely I might
See more of me.

Race is
The lie that divides
A distortion of reality
It won’t let me see myself in them and them in me.
How can we ever hope for eternity
When we live so dividedly
When we cannot live in love’s embrace
Because we cannot see past the other’s face
Or have them sharing breath and space
Too close, that is,
With one another in the temporariness of earth’s place.

Perhaps that is the key
That will at long last set us free
To look and see
Really see
Beyond the race
Behind the face
And live and love accordingly
In harmony
As by creation’s plan we were meant to be.
And Christ himself in us all the image of himself can see.

Ironically, the largest predominantly African American Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas today, with a current membership of approximately 450, is the only one of the historically African American parishes of the diocese that did not have its origin as such. It began as an all-white church in the 1930’s, but is today 90% African American.  But, what’s race got to do with it? What’s race got to do with being church, at all?

The idea for the establishment of an Episcopal church to serve the Riverside area of Houston, as it was known at that time, was put forth by Bishop Clinton Quin. The Riverside District, just south of downtown Houston and east of the Texas Medical Center, was founded in the 1930s. It was built within an area bounded by Almeda, Blodgett, Live Oak, and Oakdale. It was promoted as being only a few blocks from South End Junior High, and near the Southmore Grade School, the Houston Art Museum and Hermann Park.

According to the account given on the Riverside District’s homepage, during the 1930’s this community emerged when Houston was enjoying economic prosperity. In their own words, they say, “Reflective of the times, there was a gentleman’s agreement – unwritten anywhere but understood by all – that Jews were not welcome in River Oaks,” but many Jewish families were doing very well and could afford the property and mansions River Oaks hosted. Their solution was to build their own community to include the same amenities offered in River Oaks. The founders of the community chose to call it Riverside Terrace and for several decades, the community thrived. One important restriction common to both of these communities was the stipulation that, “The property shall never be sold to any person other than the Caucasian race.”

A concern expressed by bankers was, “One of the dangers to this property is the encroachment of the Negro settlement on the north.” The area to which they referred was the area known as Third Ward. It was within this context that St. James’ was built.

Although African Americans lived throughout Houston during this time, the vast majority resided within one of three areas: the San Felipe District, located in the Fourth Ward on the west side of town, in the Fifth Ward, and in Third Ward on both sides of Dowling Street, immediately to the north of Riverside Terrace.

With the Rev. Thomas Clarkson, the Priest-in-Charge, the work on this project was begun in 1937.  One year later, the Rev. J. Thomas Bagby became Priest-in-Charge and the church experienced phenomenal growth. In 1940, ground was broken for the church building, which was completed in three months, and in 1941, the church achieved parish status, with the Rev. Bagby as its first rector. Rev. Bagby would serve there until he left in 1952 to begin a new parish, St. Martin’s in River Oaks.

The Rev. Bagby was succeeded by the Rev. Robert L Johnson.  It was under his leadership that the parish became one of the largest in the diocese, reaching a membership, reportedly, of as many as 1000 people. But, it was the Rev. Keith Bardin, who came to St. James’ in 1958 at the height of white exodus from the church, who was at the helm of St. James’ during one of its most tumultuous periods.

In 1952, a wealthy African American cattleman by the name of Jack Caesar decided he, too, wanted to enjoy the beauty of Riverside and set his sights on moving his family in. In an effort to avoid notice, Caesar had his white secretary sign the papers on the home, and reports are that he then moved his family into the estate under the cloak of darkness.

This move, of course, began the mass exodus of White residents, both from the neighborhood and the church. According to one report, “the membership at St. James’ plummeted from over 1000 to just over 100.”  With the encouragement of some of the remaining parishioners, the Rev. Bardin set about integrating the congregation. 

During the summer of 1959, Father Keith Bardin was attending a meeting of ESCRU (The Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Harmony) and was talking to an African-American female about finding someone to “test the water” at St. James’.”  She said she knew just the person, a young lady by the name of Joan Bookman, who was from Houston and had participated in sit-ins at the Shamrock Hotel while a student at Wheatley High School. Joan had recently graduated from Howard University and moved home to Houston.  Father Bardin contacted her and she first attended St. James’ in August 1959 and became the first African-American to become a registered member of St. James’.

In November of 1959, Father Bardin invited approximately 20 black Episcopalians from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church to meet with him to explore the possibility of becoming members. St. Luke’s was the second African American Episcopal Church established in the diocese, the first in Houston, and was near Texas Southern University. According to Mrs. Evelyn Thornton, now deceased, but one of the group to accept Father Bardin’s invitation, “This was not an easy decision for us.  We had to be assured that our children could be acolytes and that we would be eligible for membership on the vestry, in the choir and any of the other organizations.  Would we have special seating?” 

Father Bardin, she said, had anticipated these concerns and was able to reassure them on each count.  When Father Bardin left in 1962, the patterns of integration were well established and African-Americans felt welcome at St. James’. By the end of 1959, ten other blacks had transferred. 

The St. James’ of today is in many ways different from the St. James’ that was started in 1937. But, that is what growth is all about. “For such a time as this,” St. James’ is here to serve the community at hand, to be a beacon to the neighborhood; provide food and masks to the needy, and soon, to provide drive-by voter registration for the community. Here, to shine Christ’s light and to reflect His love, so our neighbors can see Christ in our face and we can see them beyond their race.

“Beloved, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. But, we know that when Christ appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.” Yes, we the church, are still becoming, and hopefully, growing more into the likeness of the Son.

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