Thursday, June 29, 2006

Linguist Friend: In my father's synagogue

Isaac Singer has written a wonderful collection of sketches entitled "In My Father's Court", sketches centered around the institution of the Jewish beit din or house of judgment, in which Singer's rabbi father settled conflicts between members of the Jewish community. In my own early life, on the other hand, many important recollections center about the retired synagogue which formed the first dedicated home of the Unitarian group in my hometown of Hampton in southeast Virginia during the mid nineteen fifties.

No candidate who would be recognizable as liberal could be elected in that time and place, so that the work of individuals and organizations was the only possible route to achieve a liberal effect, whether in religion or in politics. Significant efforts came from the tiny Unitarian group and other liberals who were active in such enterprises as the local consumer cooperative which operated a grocery store and bookstore (the only other local bookstore was operated by the Mennonites, bless them).

For reasons that will appear, it was difficult to acquire a building for the use of the Unitarian group. It became possible primarily because my family, although of gentile background, had strong ties with the local Jewish community. I owe a great deal to the cultural opportunities that community provided. For instance, I learned to speak dated but correct Russian from Shalumit Schneider, the daughter of a distinguished linguistic scholar of Vilna and an aunt of our family physician Irving Berlin.

The tiny Unitarian group of our city of Hampton then included both blacks and whites. It was the only local church in which this was the case, and also was a unique open site for local homosexual men and one lesbian naval officer. Given that my parents played a prominent role in this Unitarian group, and that their integrationist views were notorious, there was no chance of acquisition of a building for the Unitarian group by normal routes. However, because of their contacts in the Jewish community, they (actually, as I recall, my father) were able to buy a very small retired frame synagogue on a side street in downtown Hampton. The building could not have seated more than forty people at once, but was in adequate repair.

In the 1950s, churches in our town were still entirely segregated. The only occasion on which I can recall the presence of black people in a racially white church during my youth was when the black family servants of the aged grande dame Mrs. Darling were permitted into the Episcopal church for her funeral services. But, in the Unitarian fellowship, we had the frequent company of the lively tall and slender young black attorney Al Smith, and of the handsome and charming Bill Moses and his wife Julia, and occasional other visitors, mostly from the black faculty at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), where Bill Moses taught landscape architecture and my father drew his salary for his part-time teaching of architecture to the undergraduates and donated it back to the Institute at the end of each calendar year.

The Unitarian group was thus a public anomaly. It was a center of liberal religion, a site of public interaction of black and white, and a center of immorality in the eyes of opponents of homosexuality. At least one of my birthday parties during my teen-age years was held there, with square-dancing which actually could have been done better in our spacious front hall at home. No doubt my parents were making a point in making sure that my white friends would come at least once to this den of iniquity.

The Unitarian group had at first tried to meet in the private elementary school which my mother ran, but this required inconvenient set-up and tear-down of seating for every service, so that it was soon abandoned for services. My mother did not integrate the school until this became financially practical, well after Brown vs. Board of Education, which changed nothing in our local schools at first. But things in Virginia work in unexpected ways. One of my family's local heroes was our neighbor Judge C.Vernon Spratley, for a period a justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, who in 1933 had made it possible for blacks to vote in the local primary elections in Virginia, not because he was either a liberal or integrationist, but because he believed in the law. However, his daughter had married a policeman at the Newport News shipyard, who one day showed me his "nigger-killer" (his term), a type of blackjack which was a heavy slug of lead with a strap of leather through it. The thought of that policeman and Judge Spratley living in the same house has puzzled me more than once.

My father often lacked personal skills and tact towards those who did not have training comparable to his own excellent engineering and architectural education, although he had a number of lasting friendships with the Newport News shipyard engineers and the research engineers of Langley Field's aeronautical research center, one of whom married my mother's youngest sister. His home library was the local primary resource for books on liberal religion.

The private elementary school that my mother ran drew on students whose homes were widely scattered, and eventually she had to provide bus service for them in order to compete in terms of convenience with the academically inferior public schools. When the crunch of rising fuel prices in the early seventies came, she could no longer afford to run the buses and had to close the school. Even at this point, however, she got in a last shot. Her school building was located on the edge of a pleasant middle class white residential area. She sold the building to a black church, the installation of which in this location set in motion forces to create the best black residential area in the city. In her retirement, she continued her strategic populist activity: when she contributed enough money towards construction of the new Hampton City Hospital that she was invited to have a portion named for her, she chose to have her name-plaque located in the employees' dining room, thus assuring benevolent awareness of her among the nurses and technicians who could make her stays there comfortable.When she died in 1999, the aged and distinguished black Unitarian attorney Al Smith, no man's servant but a good friend,. recited a long poem in her honor at her memorial service, arranged by my Anglican older brother in the same Episcopal Church in which the funeral of Mrs. Darling had taken place nearly a half century before. In this church, in which a predecessor of the present Episcopal minister had baited me with racist jokes during the wedding reception of a friend a few decades before, I told the mixed attending group of how my mother had lived, for instance of how she had sent through music conservatory a gifted student whose family was so poor that at first the lack of a clock in their house had made her chronically late for the music lessons that my mother funded.

The tiny Unitarian synagogue on a Hampton side street disappeared long ago, replaced by a new Unitarian-Universalist building placed more strategically further north and west on the Peninsula, but its history is one of the many chapters in which liberal religion has joined with open hearts in addressing the problems of its time and place.



LaReinaCobre said...

What a story; thanks for sharing, LF. I read this with great interest. You should post more like these - in addition to your usual posts, of course!

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you. CC nudged me to write like a human being, since she knew that it was there. I have a sort of very uneven mixture of my father's personal awkwardness and my mother's personal skills, so it's hard to know what will come out on a given occasion, except in writing.