There Is Nothing New Here:

America (and the Church) has always been Racist. The only way to stop it is to tell the truth about our past and our future.

Baltimore Morning Sun, November 2, 1909. Election Day. Page 16.

In 1909 Maryland was debating a hotly contested amendment to the State Constitution. There was a strong movement supported by many conservative men (all men) of the cloth — to restrict the right to vote to white men only because ‘I do not think there is any doubt to the fact that the negro is best out of politics, and I believe this amendment is the fairest and best they could have drawn’(The Very Rev. Ferdinand Lintz). Good progressive men from across Baltimore all agreed that this was what was best for the black population of our city.

The Amendment in question was carefully constructed to do two things: 1) make sure the vast majority of Black men in Maryland could not vote; and 2) not mention the words ‘black, negro, colored’ or any other variation in the text. It did so by implementing an ‘education test’ for voters — but one that ONLY applied to those given the right to vote after 1869 and excepting those who were not born in this country. It was not particularly subtle and those speaking in favor of the resolution were not subtle either.

At that time there was another priest who occupied the altar at my parish, Memorial Episcopal Church. He lived in the house where i keep my office, vested in the same sacristy, read from the same lectern and preached from the same pulpit. His history, like it or not, is my own. On the day of the amendment vote, The Rev. Dr. Dame offered his own comments, in a letter published in the Baltimore Sun, saying ‘the removal of the illiterate negro from politics would immediately tend to elevate and purify them.’ Condescending and pejorative — he cast his neighbors MY NEIGHBORS as poor, illiterate, suffering folk who don’t know any better. The Reverend continued saying that the amendment by no means stripped the negro of the right to vote, because ‘the people would not stand for it if the negro were eliminated from politics’ For Dr. Dame and others like him this was a ‘temporary measure’ for the ‘good of the country’ that didn’t ‘target negroes specifically’ and that most importantly would help to ‘’heal deep divisions’ in a state of politics that had ‘never been more divided.’

Sound Familiar?

One can scarce imagine how the clergy and people of Memorial Church in 1909 would have responded to a proposal to temporarily restrict immigration from Muslim countries, to heighten enforcement of immigration laws, or to heighten voter registration requirements? They might say something like, Don’t worry ‘Not a single white man, native or foreign born, will lose his vote.’(Dame, William M. Baltimore Sun. 1909. Page 16.)

I have heard a lot of people say on both sides ‘I have never seen anything like this!’ ‘We’ve never been more divided.’ ‘No one has ever been this divisive.’ ‘No one has ever been so blatant in their abuse.’ But of course, we know this is not true. And those of us in White America, especially people of faith, AND Especially people from historic congregations and traditions should KNOW it was us who did the dividing. It was parishes like my own that supported segregation and disenfranchisement of people of color. And not just in days of yore. For context, I have a parishioner or two who were baptized by The Rev. Dr. Dame. Neighbors still tell stories of the racist attitudes found in our parish and our neighborhood in the first half of the 20th century. This is not ancient history. And yet how quickly we choose to forget.

Contrary to what you might think — it is not those seeking to implement such laws and regulations that need to learn the history. No amount of self righteous sharing or re-tweeting will convince them to do different.y They know the history very well. They have done it before. The amendment in question in 1909 was a voter registration amendment that never even used the word ‘colored’, ‘negro’ or ‘black’ in the text. The common refrain was ‘how can it be a ban on negroes voting! It doesn’t even mention them!’ Straight out of the muslim ban press guidance. No, they don’t need to know it. Because they have done it before.

It is the rest of us. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive, middle of the road, independent, even classically conservative who — if we do not know this history, if we do not know these stories — will assume that this is something new, strange and particular to this moment. And not part of a long tradition of disenfranchisement, debasement, isolation, and division. The beginning of the Jewish story starts with ‘Remember that a wandering Aramean was your ancestor.’ Jesus, in his last encounter with his disciples calls them to ‘Remember.’ Paul frequently begins his letters ‘Remember!’ Memory is a part of our faith. It is why Tradition is so important in the Christian world. And yet sometimes there are things we choose to forget.

My parish is spending the month of lent Remembering. Fearlessly exploring our history — so that we know where we have been and where we do not want to go again. So that we know what to look for. Because we each owe as children of God, to openly and honestly look at our history and declare the places where we not only failed to be our brother and sister’s keeper, but also were we explicitly kept them apart, as other, as less than. We owe it ourselves and those who come after us to recognize where we each continue to do this, as individuals, as a church and as a community.

By exploring our past, however hurtful it may be, we CAN make the future better. What about your Church? Synagogue? Fraternal or civic organization? Neighborhood committee? Have you examined your own history. Are you able to tell these stories?

I hope you can. And I hope you will.