Uncovering My Church's Ku Klux Klan Connections
It was rumored that the cornerstone of our church's first building was dedicated by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1923 that wasn't a problem. In 1996 it became a problem. A big problem. One that might shut down effective ministry in our urban neighborhood. The Sunday morning that should have been our celebration of racial reconciliation became the showdown on the playground.
Big rock, steep hill
It would have been easier if we had ignored the rumors about our church's early Klan connections, but not a lot had been easy in my first pastorate. Gentilly Baptist Church's heyday was forty years earlier, when the post-war boom had sent young families out to New Orleans's new neighborhoods. At the last stop on the Franklin Avenue streetcar line, our tiny wooden chapel was home to a congregation that grew into a bustling church with a Gothic revival sanctuary that seated 600.
Flight to even newer suburbs resumed in the 1960s, this time motivated by racial conflict, when New Orleans, like most large cities, was rocked by marches, boycotts, and the continual threat of violence after court-ordered school desegregation. Within a decade, once posh Gentilly Terrace more resembled the inner city, tagged by gangs and pocked by drug-fueled crime. The lovely wrought iron bars on doors and windows weren't for decoration.
The pastor who preceded me had recognized the demographic tidal wave. "I'm probably the last white pastor of this church," he said, though, as it turned out, he wasn't.
The surrounding community, once mostly white, became 55 percent African American on his watch and about 80 percent on mine. My predecessor spearheaded the development of a half-dozen mission congregations—Spanish-language, Japanese, and several led by black pastors—but ultimately only one survived. And the Gentilly congregation, with its white, Baptist style, grew older and smaller.
The sanctuary was peopled by ghosts, and we knew the names of those who left better than those who stayed. Attendance was silently measured against the vacation Bible school group photo—with every pew and even the balcony filled—snapped in 1956.
Forty years is a long time to ride downhill.
The 88 people who greeted me on my first Sunday as pastor agreed that we needed a sharp turnaround. We had the same challenges as most old churches—decaying facilities, little money, an aged workforce, and storied tradition. Compounding that was the disconnect we sensed with our community. Younger black people—couples and single mothers—were moving in. In a two-year period, all the houses on the block behind the church, except mine, changed ownership as the elderly residents died or moved to assisted living facilities.
How could we connect with these new families? Would the congregation support it?
Turning up the flame
They did—mostly—but after three years, the atmosphere in the Big Easy changed and revealed how far we had to go. The night a jury in Los Angeles returned a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, New Orleans police were out in force. They feared riots like those in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating trial. That didn't materialize, but the fear factor in the city rose. Race was an issue again.
As we struggled to understand this cultural shift, several things became clear. We had done some things right thus far. Our people seemed in agreement that we needed change. They rallied to visit homes in the area, distribute flyers, hold block parties, prayer walk every street, expand the children's ministry. We started a counseling center and a food bank. We made some headway in reconnecting our commuter congregation to the immediate community. Even so, we took it slowly.
As pastor, I became "keeper of the flame." The role of church historian is usually held by a few senior members of the congregation, but our matriarch, at 102, was not expected on the job much longer, so I began collecting the stories. And telling them.
At every opportunity, we invoked our history to show how previous generations wanted to reach this neighborhood. In 1922, in very Catholic New Orleans, there were only a handful of Baptist churches and none in then-remote Gentilly Terrace. When the fledgling Baptist Bible Institute offered to send out a student preacher, the Johnson family agreed to hold meetings in their living room. Some of the Johnsons were still on our rolls, but only one, who had married into the clan in the 1930s, was still active in our congregation.
At our 70th anniversary, we recounted how the church was begun in the Johnson home one block away. If I had known the whole story, we might not have presented the plaque that beloved Mrs. Johnson hung so proudly in her fabled living room.
Over a couple of years, we began laying a foundation for a multi-ethnic, multicultural congregation. In New Orleans, the 1960s are remembered for two things: Hurricane Betsy and desegregation. And both were recalled by my congregation as devastating. My first few sermons making a biblical case for ethnic diversity were greeted coolly.
"Integration. Do you really want to stir that up?" one of our faithful givers asked me out on the front steps.
Scripture and census data changed a few minds. More were convinced when we read aloud the list of local churches that had shuttered their doors rather than adapt to changing demographics.
When we began talking in terms of missions to our own community, the director of the missionary society found her connection point and brought many in the women's group on board. I learned to let her share our leadership team's decisions with her group prior to their public announcement.
Some members, it was evident, did not welcome the message. The matriarch's 70-year-old daughter dropped her head and shook it back and forth every time I raised the subject in a sermon, but only once did she address it directly with me. Usually, after such a sermon, she would call mid-week to complain about the temperature or the volume of the organ, but when our youth minister and a couple of deacons reopened the gym for teens and young men on the block to play basketball two nights a week, she met me on the steps.
"You're giving away my church," she said, softly enough that I had to lean down to hear her. "My Momma and Daddy built this church. My brother and sister and I were baptized here. My children were baptized here. And now you're giving it all away."
The opposition was from a few, and though it was mostly soft spoken, it rang loudly in my ears: Do you really want to stir that up?
I invited others to make the case. A colleague of mine had attended Gentilly when he first came to seminary. On a return visit to our pulpit, he reported that recently he had been dismissed from the church he had served, because his 14-year-old daughter brought a friend to church. The friend was black. This drum we did not bang every week, but often enough. As our congregation saw the biases of others, our own became more evident.
In this period, a few new families joined the church, enough to offset our continuing losses to heaven and the suburbs. Attendance grew a bit, but we noticed that though a number of African Americans visited the church, some for months at a time, few stayed, and fewer joined. We still weren't bridging the gap.
After the tensions surrounding the Simpson trial, Promise Keepers' heightened their emphasis on reconciliation. And in 1995, our own denomination passed its Racial Reconciliation Resolution. Southern Baptists apologized to African Americans for the denomination's role in slavery and sought forgiveness from them and from God. Suddenly, everybody was talking about reconciliation.
Our church council discussed drafting our own resolution, but at the time, we were developing a long-range plan for Gentilly's redevelopment as a multi-ethnic church with African American leadership. Did we need to confuse that issue with talk about slavery?
We had pushed our congregation as far as we could toward New Orleans-style blended worship. "I'm not ready to give up," our music director said. "If I give up on my church, I'll have given up on the city, and I might as well move across the lake with everybody else." She was trying, but we couldn't expect our neighbors to embrace a church that sounded white much of the time, and had no black leaders on the platform.
We mapped several steps to move us forward. But just as we prepared to implement significant shifts in leadership and worship style, we hit a wall. Our history came out.
A slow burning cross
How it happened, I don't know—whether it was gossip ripening or a divine revelation. But given the reconciliation talk, it was clear why we were stuck. If the Klan rumors were true, there was a strain of racial prejudice in this church from its beginning, and it continued to manifest itself today. "Is it time for our own resolution?" we asked in a council meeting. They all agreed we should look into it.
We went to Miss Ida, who, after our late matriarch, had the longest tenure. "I came to the church as a teenager. I remember a couple of times they had cross burnings," she said.
"In the baptistery?" (That was the rumor.)
"No, on top of the piano. Small crosses—burned 'em in a plate—but it made the point. You knew what this church stood for."
"What about the cornerstone? Is it true the Klan laid the cornerstone?" I asked.
"I wasn't there—I didn't come until a year after the old building was built—but that's what I heard. It was commonplace in the 20s—the Klan showed up in a lot of parades and public ceremonies. "
She had confirmed some of the rumors, but what about the cornerstone? We needed proof. Then, cleaning out the old garage, we found stored there the old marble stone, saved after the demolition of the original wooden sanctuary. It was clearly marked "KKK"; and in some historical files, we found a copy of the dedication service. The Baptist Bible Institute sent a men's chorus, according to the bulletin, and representatives from the local order of the Ku Klux Klan presided over the laying of the stone. It was true.
Watch the quiet ones
"We should smash it and grind the pieces to dust," our administrator said when the deacons met. He felt so strongly, he confessed, because he had wrestled with racist attitudes as a young man. He wanted no part of the old cornerstone. "We should dump it in Lake Pontchartrain," he said.
"I don't know about going that far," a deacon objected. "Black people are welcome here. We have black members."
True, but when the possibility arose in the 1960s that blacks might try to join, the church had instituted new membership policies that required an interview and a few other steps prior to a congregational vote. No blacks presented themselves for membership for many years. The first black member was an older woman named Azalea. The preventive measures had been forgotten by then, and Azalea hardly seemed a threat. In fact, she was widely appreciated, and many people shared warm memories of her. And the deacon was right, in part; a dozen African Americans called Gentilly Baptist home by this time.
"But we know about the cornerstone," the administrator countered, "and we should make the record clear. We should have made a statement at the time the Racial Reconciliation Resolution was passed by the Convention."
"You're gonna make some people mad if you bring that up now," another deacon, often our voice of reason, warned.
We should pray about it, we concluded, and see if we really must take a public stand repudiating the past actions of our congregation. The deacons called on the church council to join in prayer and fasting. At the end of the fast, we came together in the sanctuary.
"I really feel the Lord has spoken to me this week," one woman said. "I've examined how I feel about a lot of things—and people."
One at a time, we voiced our support, except one man. "I don't like it, not one bit," he said. Always quiet and always friendly, he surprised us. "I have to give over to black people every day at work. I'm sick of Affirmative Action at work, and I won't be part of it at church."
"That's not what this is about—" I said.
"But have you really prayed about it?" the woman interjected.
He was quiet for a moment. "I'm against it, and if you do it, my wife and I will leave. And others, too." He left the room. The heavy front door clicked shut.
I asked, "Are we going to do this?"
"Yes," they said, resolute.
The next Sunday we made the announcement: "The cornerstone of our original building was laid by the Ku Klux Klan. What the founders' intent in that was, we can't say for sure; but we know that the racial prejudice associated with the Klan must be repudiated. This is not what our church is about today. We will have a service seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and we will break the stone."
In her seat near the front, the head-shaking woman stared at the floor. I soon heard from her brother. "I'd rather see this church shut down and a For Sale sign on the front door than to hand it to the blacks," the son of our late matriarch stormed. "We used to have good preachers."
Muttered threats, real protests
"Diane Johnson called, and she wants the cornerstone," my secretary said just before service the next weekend. "She's coming over."
Diane lived in the fabled house where the first church meetings were held. She was the granddaughter of the founders. Thankfully, Diane's mother, recipient of the plaque, had moved to the suburbs by this time.
"And she's bringing her boyfriend."
That could mean trouble. I had met him once when visiting with Diane in that living room. We had talked about her chemo treatments, her children, both grown, and her boyfriend. What I knew about the situation told me this could be serious.
Diane showed up alone. She was thin and drawn. "How could you do this? To my mother? And my grandparents? This is our church," she said, pained. I explained the situation, the resolution, and the need for church members to personally embrace our neighbors. "This isn't intended to offend you or your family. But for the people who know the story, it's important that we ask forgiveness and demonstrate our sincerity. We're going to break the stone."
"Could I see it before—" she choked up.
"Sure," I said. We walked over to the stone. She brushed it lightly with her fingers, the way you'd trace a name on a grave marker.
She left, weeping, but in a few minutes, just as the service began, she returned with her grown children and her boyfriend. Through the open windows, I could see them pacing the sidewalk between the sanctuary and the playground where the original building had stood. Two deacons guarded the stone.
I preached, but frankly, I don't remember what I said. The sermon was first in the service. At the mid-point, we planned to go outside to the playground, pray over the stone, and smash it with a sledgehammer. I could hear voices outside the window, but I only got the gist of it. A couple of phone calls, and they'd have back-up. The threats were clear, and I began to fear for our safety.
After reading Psalm 51 and several verses on reconciliation, we read aloud a prayer of confession. As we sang the opening lines of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," the deacon chairman joined me on the platform. "She wants the cornerstone," he said in my ear. "She wants to take it home."
I looked at the pianist. Keep playing, I mouthed, loud. I took the deacon with me and returned to the playground. I'm certain everyone inside could hear our conversation.
"No *@!$#@! way you're gonna break this stone," Diane's boyfriend called out as we approached from the side door.
"This don't belong to you," her daughter joined in. "It's ours, and we're going to take it home." She wielded a refrigerator dolly.
We talked for a couple of minutes, then I stepped back inside and motioned for the leaders to gather in the back hallway. "We should break it like we planned," one insisted.
The head of our women's group said, "We prayed about it and we agreed on it. If we're sincere about reconciliation, we must demonstrate it."
"No," a younger man countered, "If they want it on their heads, let 'em have it."
"Yeah, so long as they get it off our property."
We prayed, and an answer came quickly: Give each person in the congregation a whack at it, but not hard. We'd only tap it, at least once for each year since it was laid. "That will make our point," the young man said, "and everybody gets to take part."
We were unanimous.
As the congregation filed out onto the playground, the protesting foursome grew quiet and retreated. We explained the plan and Diane's desire to have the stone.
"We won't intentionally break it, but everyone who wants to may strike it with the hammer," I said. "Our neighbors should know that the racism we believe is represented by this cornerstone is not at all a part of this church today. It's vital that we ourselves understand that, and state it publicly. This church is for everyone in our community."
They lined up, young and old, white and black, life-time member and newcomer. And one by one they lifted the heavy hammer and dropped it on the cornerstone. We counted aloud as the blows echoed off the brick walls. Secretly, I hoped it would break, perhaps at the hand of an elderly lady or small child, as a judgment from God. More surprising though, Diane stepped forward, took the hammer, and just before the final blow, gave the stone her own solid strike.
The atmosphere seemed lighter as we joined hands and formed a large circle around the perimeter of the playground. Diane and her daughter joined the circle, and we prayed one more time for forgiveness, a clean slate, and a new day. The amen was punctuated by hugs and tears and cheers.
Then the boyfriend slipped the dolly under the marble square, hoisted it, and rolled it down the street.
A new South rises
I won't say all was forgiven after that. The deacon and his wife who opposed the resolution left the church, as did a senior lady, and our relationship with the descendants of the founders was strained. The significant strides of the next few years, however, were worth it.
That fall we elected our first black deacon. His wife became a leader in our women's ministry. The next year, we called an African American as our youth minister. And we named as our associate pastor an African American man with the intention that he would start a second worship service and eventually helm the church. He did.
Today he is the pastor of Gentilly Baptist Church. Attendance has more than doubled, and the church is demographically representative of the neighborhood. Several families from the old body are still there, active in leadership with the current pastor. And the son of our late matriarch attends on occasion, I'm told. To his credit, he's even said this man is a good preacher.
Eric Reed is the editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper and media, and Associate Executive Director of the IBSA Church Communications Team. He is former managing editor of Leadership Journal.