An African-American Pastor Guides His Congregation Through the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Grinke

Francis J. Grimké (1850-1937) pastored the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., an African-American congregation, for nearly fifty years.  He was an active member of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Niagara Movement and was involved in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Church historian Louis Weeks has published a short introduction to Grimké at the website of the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Throughout his ministry, Francis Grimké stood for equal rights and the end of racism against black Americans. He eloquently demonstrated this during his sermons and lectures, such as his address at the Union Thanksgiving Service at Plymouth Congregational Church, Washington, D.C., in 1919: “On an occasion such as this, it is well for us to ask ourselves the question, What reason or reasons have we, as an oppressed, aggrieved, circumscribed class in this country, in the midst of this great white population, to be thankful during this past year?” He answered the question with the Bible, specifically the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule of Jesus. He went on to appeal to Reformed teachings about respect and citizenship, condemned lynchings and pervasive racism, and lauded black leadership “no longer to submit quietly to the acts of violence that a certain class of whites have felt free to inflict upon (us).”

In my efforts to think historically and Christianly about our current coronavirus pandemic, I stumbled across Grimké’s November 3, 1918 address, “Some Reflections, Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City.” Here is how he begins the address:

We know now, perhaps, as we have never known before the meaning of the terms pestilence, plague, epidemic, since we have been passing through this terrible scourge of Spanish influenza, with its enormous death rate and its consequent wretchedness and misery.  Every part of the land has felt its deadly touch–North, South, East and West–in the Army, in the Navy, among civilians, among all classes and conditions, rich and poor, high and low, white and black. Over the land it has thrown a gloom, and has stricken down such large numbers that it has been difficult to care for them properly, overcrowding all of our hospitals–and it has proven fatal in so many cases that it has been difficult at times to dig graves fast enough in which to bury them. Our own beautiful city has suffered terribly from it, making it necessary, as a precautionary measure, to close the schools, theaters, churches, and to forbid all public gathering within the doors as well as outdoors. At last, however, the scourge has been stayed, and we are permitted again to resume the public worship of God, and to open again the schools of our city.

Now that the worst is over, I have been thinking, as doubtless you have all been, of these calamitous weeks through which we have been passing–thinking of the large numbers that have been sick–the large numbers that have died, the many, many homes that have been made desolate–the many, many bleeding, sorrowing hearts that have been left behind, and I have been asking myself the question, What is the meaning of it all? What ought it to mean to us? Is it to come and go and we be no wiser, or better for it? Surely God has a purpose in it, and it is our duty to find out, as far as we may, what that purpose is, and try to profit for it.

Grimké offered his congregation several lessons about the meaning of the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed over 675,000 Americans and over 2800 in Washington D.C.:

1. Humility. Humans are at the mercy of viruses and diseases. It reminds us that there are some things that we cannot control. Grimké writes, “How easy it would be for God to wipe out the whole human race, in this way, if he wanted to; for these terrible epidemics, plagues, the mighty forces of nature, all are at His command, are all His agents. At any moment, if He willed it, in this way, vast populations or portions of populations could be destroyed.” This was Grimké’s Calvinism at work. He believed in a providential God who sometimes brought suffering to his people. He referenced the Book of Job and Psalm 91 on this front.  God’s ways are mysterious.

2. Follow the advice and instructions of experts. In their attempts to curb the influenza and “safeguard” the general public, Washington D.C.’s public health commissioners closed theaters, schools, churches, and large public gatherings. Not everyone was happy about this. Grimké writes, “There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being.” The local government’s exercise of power in this moment was indeed “extraordinary” and would “not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances,” but the circumstances in Washington D.C. and the nation during the epidemic were far from “ordinary.” Grimké warned his congregation not to “needlessly run into danger, and expect God to protect us.” He added that, “All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.” Listen to the experts. Self-quarantine an practice social distancing.

3. Influenza does not discriminate based on race. Grimké has a message to his white neighbors: “during this epidemic scourge, if he gave any thought to the matter, if a particle of sense remained in him, he must have seen the folly of counting upon a white skin. Did the whiteness of his skin protect him? Did the epidemic pause to see whether his skin was white or black before smiting him?” Grimké believed that God was bringing this epidemic, at least in part, “to beat a little sense into the white man’s head” and “show him the folly of the empty conceit of his vaunted race superiority.” For once, he added, “a white skin counted for nothing in the way of securing better treatment–in the way of obtaining for its possessor considerations denied to those of darker hue.” Grimké was not very optimistic that his white neighbors would learn this lesson from the epidemic.

4. When churches close, the life of the faithful and the larger community is weaker.  Grimké called attention to “the sincere regrets that I have heard expressed all over the city by numbers of people at the closing of the churches.” He used these sentiments to encourage people to start attending church on a more regular basis now that the doors of congregations were open once again.

5. The possibility of death is always before us and we should live accordingly.  The 1918 epidemic, in Grimké’s words, “kept the thought of death and of eternity constantly before the people.” Grimké used this reality to preach the Gospel: “You who are not Christians, who have not yet repented of your sins, who have not yet surrendered yourselves to the guidance of Jesus Christ, if you allow these repeated warnings that you have had, day by day, week by week, to go uneeded…God has opened the way for your salvation, through the gift of His only begotten Son, who died that you might have the opportunity of making your peace with God….”

6. We should not fear because God is with us in the midst of life’s storms.  Here is Grimké: “While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would–whether we were smitten or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed.”

“Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood”

White House

Learn more about this great online exhibit at The White House Historical Association:

Many people think of the White House as a symbol of democracy, but it also embodies America’s complicated past and the paradoxical relationship between slavery and freedom in the nation’s capital.

While there are few written accounts of the enslaved and free African Americans who built, lived, and worked at the White House, their voices can be found in letters, newspapers, memoirs, census records, architecture, and oral histories.

By connecting these details from diverse sources, the White House Historical Association seeks to return these individuals to the historical forefront.

Learn more here.

Slavery and the Nation’s Capital

Early Washington D.C.

Over at website of The White House Historical Association, public historian Lina Mann explains why slavery flourished in Washington D.C. 

Here is a taste:

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution.

On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.”

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty.

President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.

All three men owned slaves.

Read the rest here.

A Review of Three New Washington D.C. Exhibits on the Women’s Suffrage Movement

women's Sufferage

Are you looking for one more quick get-away this summer?  Why not take a women’s suffrage-themed trip to Washington D.C.?

Over at The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reviews exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, and National Archives.  These exhibits, Schuessler argues, reveal the complexity of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Together, these shows — all curated by women — make up one of the richest explorations of women’s history yet assembled in the capital, or anywhere else. But they also offer a lesson in the messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change — and the fraught politics of historical memory itself.

For years, the drive for women’s suffrage was presented mainly as the story of middle-class white women and iconic national leaders like Anthony and Stanton. That story began with the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York in 1848 and ended with the triumphant adoption of the amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, which resulted in the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in American history.

But in recent decades scholars have taken a less top-down view, emphasizing the movement’s multiple starting points and patchwork progress through hundreds of state and local campaigns. They have also excavated the role of African-American women, who were largely excluded from the major, white-led suffrage organizations and marginalized in the early histories of the movement, if they were mentioned at all.

Even before the centennial year began, there have been tensions over who and what to celebrate — or even how to sum up the amendment’s significance.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Wants to Cancel the 4th of July and Replace it With the 8th of November

Trump flag

Just kidding.  I think the kids call this “clickbait.”

But I wouldn’t put it past Trump to do something like this.  After all, he has said numerous times that the greatest presidential in American history took place on November 8, 2016.

Actually, Trump will be making changes to the traditional Washington D.C. July 4th celebration.  Here is a taste of some reporting from the Washington Post:

President Trump has effectively taken charge of the nation’s premier Fourth of July celebration in Washington, moving the gargantuan fireworks display from its usual spot on the Mall to be closer to the Potomac River and making tentative plans to address the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, according to top administration officials.

 The president’s starring role has the potential to turn what has long been a nonpartisan celebration of the nation’s founding into another version of a Trump campaign rally. Officials said it is unclear how much the changes may cost, but the plans have already raised alarms among city officials and some lawmakers about the potential impact of such major alterations to a time-honored and well-organized summer tradition.

Fireworks on the Mall, which the National Park Service has orchestrated for more than half a century, draw hundreds of thousands of Americans annually and mark one of the highlights of the city’s tourist season. The event has been broadcast live on television since 1947 and since 1981 has been accompanied by a free concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol featuring high-profile musicians and a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Read the rest here.

 Some quick thoughts:

  1.  I think I will watch the Boston Pops on PBS this year.
  2.  Will there be more people in Washington D.C. on July 4th than were present at Obama’s inauguration?  I am sure Trump will be keeping an eye on this.  Also expect him to exaggerate the number who WILL show up.
  3. From a historical perspective, the most audacious and ironic part of this new plan is that Trump will give an address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
  4. Trump clearly wants to make this event about him.  He is hijacking the most sacred day on the calendar of American civil religion for a campaign speech.
  5. Trump has now turned Independence Day into a day of national disunity.  I have no doubt that he will give a campaign-style speech that will drive another wedge into our already divided country.  If Trump really cares about national unity and patriotism he should stay home.  He has already forfeited the right to speak on behalf of “we the people.”

While the Court Evangelicals Meet With Trump on June 19, Other Evangelicals Will Meet to Discuss “The Moral Collapse of Evangelicalism”

National Press

I don’t know much about this meeting, but we need to get those in attendance a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

Here is the press release from the National Press Club:

Location: 4th Estate Room

Evangelical Leader, Rev. Rob Schenck, Joined by Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, and House Chaplain Patrick Conroy :

Donald Trump and the Moral Collapse of American Evangelicalism

Washington, D.C. (June 4, 2018) – Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck, President of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute and author of Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love, will be joined by Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook (International Religious Freedom appointee of President Barak Obama) and Chaplain Patrick Conroy (House of Representatives Chaplain since 2011 who was asked by Speaker Ryan to resign) for a special luncheon open to all members of the news media and writers onTuesday, June 19 at the National Press Club from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the 4th Estate Restaurant (Limited Seating – RSVP required).

As some 1000 evangelical leaders meet with President Donald Trump at the Trump Hotel in Washington on June 19, Schenck, a dissenting evangelical, will lead a discussion, moderated by Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, regarding Donald Trump and the moral collapse of American evangelicalism and why this branch of Christianity needs reformation.

The Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck is the past chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, America’s oldest association of evangelical ministers, missionaries, and military chaplains, as well as a current executive advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the President of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, the subject of the emmy-award winning documentary, The Armor of Light, and author of the newly released HarperCollins book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love.

When: Tuesday, June 19, 2018 at 12:30 p.m.

Where: National Press Club, 4th Estate Restaurant, 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C.

RSVP: To RSVP email Melinda Ronn at melinda.tdbi@gmail.com or call 917-743-7836

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS EVENT, CONTACT:

Melinda Ronn

917-743-7836 

*Washington Post* Reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey Joins a Christian Nationalist Tour of D.C.

Providential HistoryHere is a taste of her report:

The girls in red, white and blue plaid skirts and boys in khaki pants climbed aboard the bus with their parents before it pulled away from the Red Lion Inn in Arlington, Va.

The 46 Mississippi sixth-graders from Tupelo Christian Preparatory School were headed to the Mall for a conservative “Christian history” tour — a theme that stands out in largely liberal, diverse Washington, even given the city’s role as host to tours for practically every interest.

“We are a nation founded by people who put their trust in God,” said Stephen McDowell, co-founder of the Providence Foundation, the right-leaning Christian educational nonprofit group in Charlottesville that sponsors the tours.

“What’s our motto?” McDowell called out to the students.

“In God We Trust!” they yelled back in unison.

“America is exceptional,” McDowell continued. “This nation was unlike any in history.”

The tours attempt to explain the buildings, monuments and symbols in the nation’s capital through a Christian lens, as visible proof of religious foundations upon which the country was built.

And here is my small contribution to the article:

Many historians takes issue with the idea of a tour that focuses at looking at national history solely through a conservative Christian perspective.

“People like McDowell get some facts wrong, but my real issue with them is the way they try to spin the past to promote their present-day political agenda,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College, a Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “They cherry-pick. … This is not how historians work.”

The political leanings of the Christian history tour group were apparent.

For example, the students and parents watched Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) give an address in the Senate chambers about labor rights for Native Americans and his opposition to Trump’s stance toward Russia and the recent tax reform law.

“He sounded like he was from somewhere in the North,” Julia Jane Averette, 12, said over lunch. “I wish a Republican had been talking when we went through.”

Averette said she is inspired to become president some day. “I would lower taxes and spend money on things that are useful, like protecting the country, not what Obama did,” she said.

Read the entire article here.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Costanzo

DWB_DEVVoAArQhf.jpgAdam Costanzo is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: Initially, I envisioned the project as an examination of the relationship between the local residents of the District of Columbia and the federal government. Because the Constitution gives Congress exclusive control over the federal District, the capital has always had a very peculiar relationship with the federal government. As I began to explore the subject, however, I came to better understand the District’s place in national debates over political ideology. Eventually, it became clear that understanding the development of the city required understanding the visions for the nation, and for the city, put forward by the political leaders of the time. Thus, the book became an exploration of those visions for the national capital and the ways that they affected the growth of the city.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: Federal support for development of the national capital ebbed and flowed in connection with the ideological goals of those in power. George Washington’s vision for a grand national capital on the Potomac was supported (but largely bungled) by Federalists, systematically ignored by Jeffersonians, and with the help of locals who had served as caretakers for Washington’s vision revived by Jacksonians as they began to establish a continental American empire.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington’s Washington: Visions for the National Capital in the Early American Republic?

AC: In cities and towns across the nation, the federal government might wield some influence. In the District of Columbia, it had complete control over the city. That fact made the capital a physical embodiment of the ideological goals of early republic politicians. Thomas Jefferson might have written glowing prose about yeoman farmers advancing his empire of liberty into the west, but he had very few ways to control the actual development of that region. In the District, he got to decide what streets to fund, what bridges to build, and, in one delightful example of micromanagement, how to properly secure the bars over the windows of the new city jail.

If you have interest in early republic politics, city planning, DC history, architecture, or any of the ways that our built environment both reflects and affects the goals we have for our cities and our nation, you’ll need to read George Washington’s Washington.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AC: As an undergraduate in the post-Cold War 1990s, I studied International Relations and Russian Studies. While, these studies allowed me to study abroad and then briefly to live abroad after college, I eventually realized that what I had liked most about my IR courses was learning the history of the places and people I was studying. I decided to leave behind Russian Studies and take up American history for graduate school because I had learned enough Russian history by that point to see that it is almost unceasingly depressing. I settled on a specialty in early republic America in part because Americans at the time held out great hopefulness for the future despite the rapidly changing world around them.

JF: What is your next project?

AC: Right now, I’m working on turning the ideas and issues from George Washington’s Washington into a Reacting to the Past learning experience for the classroom. In a long-form Reacting game, students would be assigned characters from the history of early Washington such as local landowners, land speculators, city commissioners, or national politicians. Through a series of in-class activities, they’d work their own way through complicated questions like, what should the capital city look like, what should it mean to the nation, how should its plan reflect their political goals, how should construction of the city be funded, and what responsibility should the federal government have for the city itself. I think the subject matter offers not only room for students to engage in historical research and debate but also an opportunity to introduce the notion that the built environment around them carries meaning and has an effect on their lives.

AC: Thanks, Adam!

AHA Bound!

washington-dc-capitol.ngsversion.1435610747994

I’m heading to Washington D.C. today for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I will be joining thousands of historians in a weekend of presentations, panels, conversations, job-searching, book-browsing, receptions and other history-related activities.  As always, we will have the conference covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Check back often for updates from this D.C. history-fest!

I will be participating in two sessions.  Both will take place on Friday:

Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project

The Bible in American Cultural and Political History

I hope to see some of you there!

Has Anyone Ever Lived on the National Mall in Washington D.C.?

Absolutely.

  • Nacotchtank Indians lived there in the early 1600s.
  • A small group of slave-holding farmers lived there in the 1790s.
  • Thomas Jefferson moved there in 1801 and all the subsequent presidents followed. 
  • Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, lived there for twenty-three years in the mid-19th century.  
  • From 1840-1930 there was a working-class neighborhood there.

Is Washington D.C. Godless?

Not according to Joshua DuBois, former head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.  He thinks Washington D.C. is actually a very religious place.  Here is a taste of his recent article at The Daily Beast:

Everyone knows about the politicians and interest groups—mainly conservative—who wear their faith on their sleeve. Yet across the ideological spectrum, Washington is filled with people at the height of political power who are practicing their faith seriously and profoundly, but largely out of public view. I recently spoke to some of these people about the role that religion plays in their private and public lives. What their stories make clear is that—in coffee shops, vibrant local congregations, congressional offices, and White House corridors—God is far more present in Washington than most Americans realize.

Read the entire piece.

Which Historic Place Should Get $1 Million?

Partners in Preservation, a program that awards grants to historic places across the country, has $1 million dollars to give to a historic site in the Washington D.C. metro area. 

Who should get the money?  Vote here. So far the National Cathedral and Mount Vernon are in a tight race with eleven days of voting to go.  I am expecting the gang over at Reckless Historians to stuff the ballot box!  🙂

Here is a Washington Post article about the competition.

Gerson: Obama Has No Right to Complain About the Lack of Civility

According to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, America is on its way to becoming “a nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.”  We have become so polarized that civility seems impossible.

If I got everyone on my Facebook wall together for a political conversation there is a good chance that Wrestlemania 29 might break out.  (OK–I had to look up that Wrestlemania reference.  Thank you Wikipedia).  Things are that bad.

I had a nice conversation with some of the folks in attendance at a lecture I gave on this subject last weekend at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Ocean City.  We were all pretty skeptical about a sudden cease-fire in the culture wars, but I still held out hope that something along these lines was possible. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills.  I have been known to do this kind of thing.

How can we expect a nation to move forward when we have a Republican member of the House of Representatives (Allen West from Florida) claiming that “about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party” are “members of the Communist Party.”  Or his Democratic colleague in the Florida delegation, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, claiming that all Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.”

Obama admits that he has failed to fix the divisive culture of Washington.  He had hoped that he would be able to “change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people.” It has not panned out.  And those of you who think that Obama is to blame for this nasty political climate, let’s remember that things were not much better when George W. Bush was in office.  In fact, they were not much better in the 1790s either.  (Sometimes we need a little history lesson.  It gives us perspective).

But according to Gerson, Obama, at least for now, is part of the problem. His attacks on Mitt Romney in recent weeks have been vicious, especially coming from a president who laments the fact that he has not made Washington a more civil and decent place.

This ad is politically effective, and the message might even be true, but it does nothing to fix the culture of American politics:

If Obama really wants to change the culture of Washington he will have to rise above the kind of negative campaigning that has defined American politics since before the Civil War.  Of course, if history is any barometer, this is not going to happen.  Obama is a product of a corrupt electoral system just like every other national political candidate.  In order to survive politically he must do what he has to do to win re-election.  Any attempt to transcend this system would be an act of morality and political bravery.  But it will also result in electoral losses. 

Gerson is right when he says that “political polarization is the product of democracy that undermines democracy.” 

Recreating Early Washington D.C. Through Digital Technology

Once again, I am continually amazed at the way digital technology can contribute to our understanding of the past. 

Here is a video of a project called “Visualizing Early Washington: A Digital Reconstruction of the Capital ca. 1814.”  The project is sponsored by the Imaging Research Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

You can learn more about this project here.

HT: Ralph Luker at Cliopatria