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'His rightful place'

The Rev. W.H.G. Carter's great-granddaughter shares a family's living tradition.
By Starita Smith
May/June 2002 5.1.02

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The white Unitarian ministers who went to check out my great-grandfather’s ministry were appalled that the little storefront Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood was in the worst part of town, the West End, where I would be born and grow up. Great-grandpa had been raised by an African Methodist Episcopal preacher father and mother in Arkansas and had been educated and taught at a small black college there, but he had chosen not to be ordained in the AME church. He had embraced Unitarianism because he was a very independent thinker, yet he retained for the rest of his life his parents’ dedication to helping poor black people. The white ministers who came to visit his church, which was active from 1918 to 1938, didn’t care about all that. They said it was wrong for a Unitarian church to be in a “rowdy neighborhood” and turned their backs on it, eliminating any chance for help for the poor of Cincinnati from the denomination and denying Great-grandpa his rightful place in church history.

In 1998, six decades after the all-but-forgotten little church closed, the Rev. Sharon Dittmar mentioned my great-grandfather and his congregation in her sermon one Sunday, setting off the events that led to the racial reconciliation weekend for the Carter descendants and the members of two Unitarian congregations in Cincinnati.

I was very excited about the event. I had gone to First Unitarian for about a year when I was a teenager in the mid-’60s, but I had been treated much like my great-grandfather. I lived in the wrong neighborhood for my Unitarian friends to attend my birthday party, even though the church building was located within walking distance of my house. It is that way with a lot of old churches, both black and white, in central city locations. The parishioners drive in from the suburbs, arrive at about 10:45 a.m. and get back in their cars at about 12:15. The people who live next door to their churches could be people who live on the moon, for all some parishioners know.

Dittmar was trying to change that. She was looking for a way to bring her church into the neighborhood. With her urging, the congregation decided to make the Carter weekend the launching pad for a new commitment to better race relations.

This was all great to me, partly because I thought that someone else would be doing the work and organizing, and all I had to do was fly to Cincinnati from Dallas and enjoy myself. At the Greater Cincinnati Airport, I hugged my sister and niece from New York City, whom I had not seen in years, and we blissfully waited in the airport terminal for Cousin Leslie Edwards to show up and give us a ride to the home of the Unitarian couple with whom we would be staying for the weekend. Things were fine until Leslie turned to me as we were driving over one of Cincinnati’s many bridges over the Ohio River and said, “Now, I want you to give the family’s response on Sunday.” Without thinking, I said I would. This was a family elder asking me to do this. It was a request for which there could be no answer but the affirmative.

Then I thought about what Leslie was asking me, and my stomach dropped. As part of the service on Sunday the Unitarians would give a formal apology to my family for what had happened to my great-grandfather. Leslie wanted me to respond to that apology. I felt honored, humbled, and terrified all at the same time. As if he could feel my feelings, Leslie added as an afterthought, “I know you can write something real good.” That was it. My fate was sealed.

As we gathered at the church for a special dinner, I couldn’t fully relax and enjoy anything. I looked into the faces of my relatives, who were, as usual, running around greeting each other, hugging and talking nonstop in everything from gentle southern inflections to clipped, brusque bursts. They didn’t see me often, so there were emotional reunions, and there was too much confusion to get people’s guidance about what to say on Sunday.

There was so much to do. I owed my sisters and niece time alone after we had been apart for years. I owed my grandmother a brief visit. She still lives in the apartment I had visited as a child, only now ruins surround her building. They are tearing down the old projects to make way for “mixed-use” housing. We had had mixed-use housing in those projects full of families and old folks when I was a child. The twenty-first-century incarnation of “mixed-use” housing would include single young professionals, families, old folks, and, for the first time in the more than sixty years my grandmother had lived in her apartment, lots of white people. I returned to discover that my childhood homes were about to be wiped out in the name of economic revitalization. Part of my life was being erased. It made me sad.

Sunday morning, I got up hours before anyone. I was counting on the deadline-pressure response I had cultivated for more than twenty years as a journalist to kick in. I had snatched moments riding in cars from event to event to write notes about what I wanted to say, far more than what I thought I needed for the service. Now it was just a matter of typing them out and cutting down the material. Had I waited too long? I was afraid I had. The fear allowed me to tune out everything except the writing before me.

All Carters—regardless of whether they are Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostals, African Methodist Episcopalians, Unitarians, Buddhists, Catholics, agnostics, atheists, or something I haven’t heard about yet—share one Unitarian lesson handed down from Great-grandpa. It is: Think for yourself. I felt that every single one of them from the oldest to the youngest child could formulate a thoughtful response to the Unitarians, each of which would be eloquent and totally different. I love my family, but the clan is a tough crowd and loves debate. I soon closed those thoughts out of my mind and tried to feel their collective wish (at least the majority wish) for our response. I was saving my last version of my remarks on the computer when everyone in the house came downstairs fully dressed for church. I was in my pajamas! I jumped up with the speech hot off the computer printer and got dressed in record time.

Carters streamed into the church. About 600 people were there that morning, including 125 Carters, who made up the majority of the black people present. The minister asked us to stand by generations. Only two of the original fifteen Carter children are still alive, and both were there. My mom’s first cousins, beautiful yellow-brown silver-haired little women who look just like her, hovered over me all weekend. They gave me strength and the power of knowing that someone loved my mother when she was a girl and still remembered her as she was in all the stages of her life. One of them held my hand as I waited to say my piece.

Leslie, being Leslie, didn’t tell me when I was supposed to speak. The service progressed, and I relaxed for a few minutes. Then Dittmar called Leslie to the podium and he called my name, “Starita” (with an implied, “you come on up here now”), just as if I was a little girl being called forth to recite her ABCs or a poem in school.

It felt good to be called that way, and it grounded me. I was doing my part for my family where I knew my place in the world. I felt my great-grandparents, as I often do, watching me, encouraging me. I looked up and through the glare of the lighting, I saw the Old Ones, their weathered dark African and American Indian faces shining with silent love and dignity, watching from above the crowd. Whenever they show up, I am attempting something important and difficult, and they know I need their support to accomplish it. Then I looked down at my sisters and niece and the little old women who look just like my mom and spoke for our family.

“Our shared identity as Carters has everything to do with the principles and struggles of W.H.G. and Beulah Carter,” I said, invoking the names of my great-grandparents. “Being a Carter means something specific and life-affirming to all of us and helps determine how we see ourselves as human beings.”

I touched on my family’s European, African, and Native American heritage and said, “we are fifteen different colors, but we are all one family.” Just then I heard some affirming amens and hmphs from the Carters, and that let me know I was doing okay by my family. This was good, because I was fully aware that it takes some nerve to stand in somebody’s church and even suggest that I might be able to tell them what to do. Yet I had to do it, or I would let my great-grandparents and my family down. Great-grandpa would have done it forcefully. I knew that from the little books he had written. I took a deep breath and gathered myself from all the way down in my toes.

“In recent years, there has been a wave of apologies to black people for everything from slavery to neglect of Africa. The reaction among many blacks to apologies from groups like the Southern Baptists, a denomination founded on the support of slavery, has been mixed. We read the headlines and we say, ‘So, what changes now?’ Many black people know that race is still a factor in nearly every option we have in life—how we earn our living, where we live, what house or car we can buy, how our children are educated, where we go to church, or whether we eschew church altogether. I look at efforts like this W.H.G. Carter reconciliation weekend here in Cincinnati as different from the rest of the apologies, perhaps, because I expect more from Unitarians than Southern Baptists.” The Unitarians laughed so long and loudly I had to stop speaking until it died down. I continued, “It is very meaningful to me that you took the initiative to acknowledge a history that must be embarrassing for you and to attempt to make amends in the present for what was wrong in the past.”

Then I said that the Carter family accepted the apology, and this big sigh of relief came from the ministers gathered behind me. I guess they were worried that we wouldn’t accept their apology until we actually said we would. I challenged the Unitarians to continue on their quest for reconciliation and to face the complex issues of race forthrightly. Then I heard applause, and I was enveloped in this gigantic hug from a black-robed Dittmar who had to lean over to do it because she is tall, and I’m short. When the hug seemed to go on a beat or two too long, it dawned on me that she was crying and leaning on me for support. I was pretty much a pile of emotional jelly myself. The male ministers, including the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, the black Unitarian minister from Toronto whose book first publicized my great-grandpa’s ministry, bent over and hugged me, too.

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