Our Most Segregated Hour

The following is an excerpt from “Our Most Segregated Hour,” one of 10 essays collected in Erin Tocknell’s new book of creative nonfiction, Confederate Streets. It is available in bookstores on March 19 and can be ordered through Amazon.com as a paperback or Kindle version.

I reasoned as a child, 1990

Sam’s sermons were concise, always about 10 minutes long, and in them he usually tied the morning’s scripture to a call for action against injustice. He focused on segregation. Jim Crow was just beginning to loose its hold on Nashville, but not without a fight. In 1958, when Sam began preaching at Calvary, Nashville’s public schools had just ended their first year as an integrated system, a year that began with a midnight bombing at a school where one black child had enrolled.

Also in 1958, a young black minister named James Lawson arrived in Nashville by bus and enrolled in classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He had been sent by Martin Luther King himself. In Nashville, Lawson joined forces with two powerful ministers in the black community–C.T. Vivian and Kelly Miller Smith. Lawson led workshops on nonviolence at Smith’s church.

Their goal was to change everything about the segregated environment of Nashville. They began with department stores downtown, holding sit-ins at the lunch counters and boycotting stores that did not treat blacks fairly. By February 1960, most downtown shops in Nashville accepted black and white customers and the movement had spread across the South.

They marched and worked to integrate grocery stores, restaurants, and movie theatres; and every Sunday morning Sam preached at Calvary. Yet before I began researching my church’s role in the movement, I’d never even heard his name.

A month later, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt for partaking in the sit-ins. Sam joined Reverends Lawson, Vivian, and Smith, as well as other ministers and rabbis, to form a coalition of ministers working for social justice. They marched and worked to integrate grocery stores, restaurants, and movie theatres; and every Sunday morning Sam preached at Calvary. Yet before I began researching my church’s role in the movement, I’d never even heard his name.

Calvary has an Anderson Chapel, a Willard Blue Library, and a Masters Common. There’s no Dodson anything. While combing through filing cabinets in the church archives one evening, I found a paragraph clipped from the church newsletter announcing that a small table in the sanctuary, where the empty offering plates are stacked every week, had been dedicated to him. Even our current head pastor, Peter, didn’t know about the table. I’ve realized that churches, as a whole, are often not very focused on their histories, although many of them have a generational presence (at Calvary there are always pews filled with three or four generations of the same family, all of them lifelong members). This lack of historical perspective may exist because churches are always looking forward. There’s always the next Sunday School lesson to plan, an upcoming senior luncheon, a new topic in Bible Study, all of it forever in the future.

Growing up, all the history I knew at Calvary was centered around physical artifacts. The Battle of Nashville, which was the last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War, is recalled by the vine-covered gulley that remains on church grounds. The church’s first members met in the cafeteria at my middle school just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor was bombed. And just south of Calvary, on Hillsboro Road, there is another church whose founding Sam was, in a sense, responsible for. My family and I passed that church every Sunday. Calvary is a red brick building with a tarnished copper roof. The church we passed is white brick, with a towering white steeple and sanctuary doors and windows designed in the same style as Calvary’s. This other church faced east, so it fairly shone when we passed it in the mornings – beautiful. One morning when I was about ten, I noticed its name–St. Paul Southern Methodist. “Hey!” I said, leaning my head over the front seats. “If we live in the South, why don’t we go there?”

I was horrified that anyone would start a church, of all things, on a foundation of racial hatred, but mainly I was relieved that Calvary was on the right side of the issue.

Mom scoffed. “You don’t wanna go there.”

“Why not?”

“The people who founded that church left Calvary. Our minister was in favor of integration and they didn’t like it,” Mom said.

“Isn’t integration the good thing and segregation the bad thing?”

“Yes.”

I was horrified that anyone would start a church, of all things, on a foundation of racial hatred, but mainly I was relieved that Calvary was on the right side of the issue. Like the Union soldiers’ victory and the charter members who I always pictured meeting by candlelight during air raid drills, my church’s history seemed to be dominated by the brave and the true. I was happy to be associated with the good guys.

There’s really no need for metaphor about my innocence as a child. From age six to eighteen, I was literally a choirgirl. In middle school, I was an acolyte lighting candles, collecting offering plates, and assisting the ministers with a nervous solemnity. My friends and I were at church every Sunday morning and back in the evening for choir or youth group meetings. Then there were Wednesday Night Suppers with Sanctuary Choir rehearsals after that, where, as a high schooler, I learned Mozart, Bach, and Handel.

When I think of growing up at Calvary, I think of singing, and I think of constantly moving in a pack. I wish I could embody my entire childhood in a specific story–a story that could show how dissonant the notion of conflict and schism at Calvary seems to me. All I can think of, though, are Dylan Thomas’ words about the Christmases he loved so well, that they so ran together he could not remember if it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when he was six or six days and six nights when he was twelve. Calvary was like that, each week moving in its comfortable rhythm until the weeks became months, the seasons changed, the seasons became another year of Christmas greenery, Easter lilies, youth retreats, summer camps, and harvest festivals; and it all began again. The children I grew up with there are still cherished friends, now expecting children of their own–more little heads in the family pews.

When we were young, my friends and I learned that God is love. We learned that this love compelled us to act, that faith without works is dead. We knew that. So we collected mittens at Christmas. We cooked meals for the homeless families who sheltered in the church gym once a week. We traveled out to Appalachia, repaired homes, loved the people, and learned about economic injustice. My friends and I did all of these things, but nobody took us into the church library to read the articles someone had clipped from The Tennesseean and put in a manila envelope. No one told us that a former minister once fought to allow blacks to shop at the H.G. Hills Grocery Store down the street. The entire time I was at Calvary, nobody taught us about Sam.

Erin Tocknell is a teacher of English and assistant director of the Caldwell Writing Center at McCallie School.

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