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Cincinnati churches continue racial reconciliation

Unitarian Universalists build relationships with descendents of black minister spurned by Unitarians in 1930s.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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Andrew A. Carter (seated, center), 86, is one of the Rev. W.H.G. Carter's 15 children. A member of First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, he and other descendents of the black Unitarian minister gathered in January for the ninth annual "Carter Sunday," an ongoing racial reconciliation effort launched by the UU congregations in Cincinnati. (Courtesy First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati)

Eight years ago, Starita Smith issued a challenge to Unitarian Universalists in Cincinnati. Two congregations, First Unitarian Church and Northern Hills Fellowship, had extended an apology to Smith and her family because Cincinnati Unitarians and the American Unitarian Association (AUA) had turned their back on her grandfather, the Rev. W.H.G. Carter, and his African-American Unitarian church in 1938.

Smith accepted the apology on behalf of her family, but she also asked: “What are you going to do now? . . . We Carters encourage you to continue to look into your hearts, ask difficult and complex questions, and take action.”

Since 2001, that is what the Cincinnati congregations have done. Dissatisfied with simply issuing an apology to Carter’s family, they have launched a campaign of racial reconciliation, delving into members’ own pasts and reaching out into their urban neighborhoods to do the kind of work the social justice–minded Carter set out to do.

The Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become its own sort of holiday in the First Unitarian Church. January 18, 2009, was the ninth annual “Carter Service” at First Unitarian, commemorating the anniversary of the service when the congregations first formally reached out to Carter’s family.

In 2001, the church was apologizing for a dark chapter in Unitarian history. In a storefront on Cincinnati’s West Fifth Street, Carter had established a community center, church, and home for his wife, Beulah Carter, and their 15 children. Trained as an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Carter was a political activist drawn to Unitarianism. At various times, he supported himself as a photographer, postal worker, painter, teacher, fun house operator, and real estate speculator. Throughout his 20-year ministry, he dedicated himself to providing food, money, clothing, and advocacy to poor blacks in Cincinnati.

White Unitarians in Cincinnati reportedly knew of Carter’s church, which he opened in 1918, but they made no effort to lend material support beyond donating a box of old hymnals. Some 20 years after Carter opened the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood, the AUA got wind of it and sent a minister to investigate. The Rev. Lon Ray Call found Carter to be “a kindly man, quite intelligent.” However, the storefront church did not impress him. It was “poor and characterized by rowdiness,” Call reported. “I do not recommend fellowship.” Not long afterwards, the Unitarian Brotherhood closed its doors, and its 60-odd members dispersed.

The Rev. Sharon Dittmar brought this racial rebuff to the attention of Cincinnati Unitarian Universalists in a sermon in 1998. At that time, she was serving as interim minister of Northern Hills; she became minister of First Unitarian later that year. In a startling coincidence, Carter’s grandson Leslie Edwards was in the pews the day she preached about Carter. “I never thought I’d hear his name mentioned in a Unitarian church,” Edwards told David Whitford, who wrote a cover story about the church’s racial reconciliation service for UU World in 2002. A member of the Northern Hills fellowship, Edwards has helped revive Carter’s name and keep the racial reconciliation project alive.

So, too, has Walter P. Herz. A member of First Unitarian, Herz served as the church’s historian, and he felt personal shame at being unfamiliar with Carter. Herz has helped conduct ten years of research to resurrect Carter’s legacy and extend an olive branch to his family and Cincinnati’s African American community.

Dittmar, Edwards, and Herz all worked to create the racial reconciliation service in 2001. And they all embraced the question of Carter’s great-granddaughter Starita Smith: “What are you going to do now?”

First Church established the Carter Memorial Fund. Since 2001, the fund has distributed more than $30,000 donated by First Unitarian Church and Carter family members. According to Ann Retford, chair of the Carter Fund Committee, the fund provides “last resort” help to poor families with emergency housing problems or critical educational needs for their children.

For example, in the past year, the fund made grants to seven families who were at risk of homelessness so they could make rent and utility payments. It also paid for caps and gowns for two seniors’ high school graduations; paid student fees for eight high school seniors so they could graduate and attend college; provided storage cabinets for a local elementary school tutoring program; paid for instruments for the music program in a neighborhood center; and paid for an art project at a local elementary school.

This past January, First Unitarian organized the biggest Carter service since the 2001 reconciliation. The congregation has grown, Herz said. “I became more and more aware that there are a lot of new members who really didn’t know much about the Carter program.”

The weekend-long festivities included a celebration at the Cincinnati Museum Center, which coincided with the opening of the museum’s exhibit, “RACE: Are We So Different?” * A panel discussion featured local historians and Carter’s great-granddaughter Starita Smith, a freelance journalist and a sociologist at the University of North Texas. During the festivities, church members also presented research materials about the Carter family to the Cincinnati Historical Society Library.

“A larger, long-range goal of both the Carter Family and First Unitarian Church is that this program serve as a model others can adapt and use to help them achieve similar racial reconciliation missions,” said Herz. That spurred them to donate the materials to the historical society, so others could mine their research toward similar ends.

Smith said she has been “enormously impressed” by the work of the Cincinnati UUs. But not surprised. She had been skeptical of a wave of apologies to African Americans, and she told the Unitarian Universalists that she expected more from them.

When she attended the Carter weekend festivities this past January, Smith was not disappointed by what she saw. “My hometown is a tough nut to crack,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Denton, Tex. She was heartened to see families of different colors gathering at the Cincinnati Museum Center for the Carter celebration and the race exhibit. “I wouldn’t say everyone came there because they were Unitarian, and that was the best part about it. That means something has changed.”

Change has come to her Carter family as well. Though not all Carter family members have embraced the project, those who have, Smith says, have found the reconciliation activities moving, encouraging, and healing in terms of reclaiming their great-grandparents’ legacy.

Smith calls it a “blessing” to have worked with Herz and members of First Unitarian. She told the audience gathered at the Cincinnati Museum Center: “My future grandchildren will know much more about the history that they come from than I did as a girl. The way in which the church project and the family project have worked together to enhance each other has been a true miracle to me. I have felt the power of it in my bones and at the bottom of my soul. This thing is spiritual.”

Correction 03.09.09: In an earlier edition of the story we mis-identified the name of the exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center. It is not "Race: Why Are We So Different?" but "RACE: Are We So Different?" We regret the error. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

See sidebar for links to related resources, including UU World’s 2002 coverage of the racial reconciliation service in Cincinnati.

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