Seattle Presbytery confronts racist past

Black congregants forced to use run-down building after own church sold

November 02, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE - Daisy Tibbs Dawson had been trying to tell the story for 50 years. No one seemed to care. The few who heard didn't believe.

Then along came this guy from California, the Rev. Boyd Stockdale. He wanted to know, and Dawson poured it all out.

She told of how her congregation, the only black Presbyterian church in the Northwest, was nearly extinguished by a then-all-white presbytery, the local governing body. The church was deceived, forced to integrate with a white congregation that didn't want them, and then neglected for five decades. The presbytery recently acknowledged its racism and publicly repented in a Service of Reconciliation.

"They hoped we would disappear," Dawson says plaintively.

She is 79 and the youngest of four black churchgoers still alive who lived through the upheaval.

Dawson was 20 when she left her small town in Alabama to attend the University of Washington. She gravitated to Grace Presbyterian in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the Central area, one of the oldest sections of the city and at the time predominantly black.

The wood-frame church, worn but still sturdy, looked like just another house, only bigger. Between 40 and 50 people attended regularly, many of them transplants from the South. Dawson fit right in.

Then in 1953 the presbytery announced that the church was to be sold; the members had one week to move to the all-white Madrona Presbyterian Church half a mile down the road.

As stunned members asked questions, the presbytery said it was being done for the purpose of integration.

To placate Grace members, the presbytery made two promises: The proceeds of the sale of Grace would be used to improve Madrona, and Grace's black pastor, the Rev. Ray Day, would become co-pastor of the newly integrated church.

Integration at Madrona lasted about a month.

Thelma Ross, 82, a tall woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a slow, halting way of talking, recalls the first Sunday at Madrona. She and her husband, Fordie, 89, were among the first Grace members to arrive. Everybody was polite, white and black, but it was a nervous politeness marked by furtive glances. Few spoke.

"We looked around, and it was packed," Ross says. "The next Sunday we saw a lot of the whites had gone, and the next Sunday after that they were almost all gone. Little by little. They never came back."

In what seemed an instant, Madrona had become a black church, and the new congregants soon realized that they had inherited a sagging building. The roof was in bad shape, leaking in numerous spots.

The money from the sale of Grace - $6,000 - never came. Instead, the presbytery used it to help buy land for a new church on Mercer Island, a suburban islet in the middle of Lake Washington, a few miles away.

Day was never reassigned to Madrona. He moved to Chicago and died in 1991.

For decades, the black congregation at Madrona was led by white ministers who, congregants say, didn't understand them or take them seriously.

Then in 1995 Stockdale, 63, took over the Seattle Presbytery.

When Madrona's minister retired in 2000, Stockdale met with leaders of the congregation to discuss the search for a new one.

The one doing most of the talking, as was her predilection, was Dawson, who looked straight into Stockdale's eyes in the middle of the meeting and said, "You've been trying to shut us down for 50 years."

Stockdale wanted to know the source of Dawson's anger. He arranged to meet with her the following Saturday with the sole intention of listening. In subsequent weeks, he talked with the other three survivors of Grace. Over 18 months, Stockdale pieced together what happened.

"This is a case study in how racism works. They had a good intention, but they went and did it in a way that was informed by racism," he says.

Stockdale shared the story with the Rev. Dale Sewell, pastor of Mercer Island Presbyterian, the church whose beginnings were made possible in part by the sale of Grace.

Today, Mercer Island is among the most prosperous of the 53 churches under the Seattle presbytery. Sewell shared the story in private conversations with congregation members.

The two ministers got together with the newly appointed pastor of Madrona, a black woman named Flora Bridges, and last month they conducted a Service of Reconciliation during which 200 people from Mercer Island and Madrona, white and black, packed into Madrona's sanctuary to hear the story publicly told for the first time.

By all accounts, an abundance of tears was shed in the sanctuary that afternoon. Another member of the Mercer Island church, Jack vanHartesvelt, was so moved by the story that he organized a volunteer construction crew to put in a new bathroom and furnace at Madrona.

VanHartesvelt then hired workers to install a $30,000 roof, paid for by the Mercer Island congregation. Also planned are a kitchen, nursery and back porch. The exterior will get a makeover, and maybe one of these days the windows on the bell tower will shine again.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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