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Light on a Divided Church

Prodded by a black congregant and a white reverend, a 50-year stain of racism in the Seattle Presbytery is acknowledged at last.

October 29, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Daisy Tibbs Dawson had been trying to tell the story for 50 years. No one seemed to care. The few who heard didn't believe.

Then along came this guy from California, the Rev. Boyd Stockdale. He wanted to know and Dawson poured it all out.

They made a curious silhouette as they walked the corridors of Madrona Presbyterian Church, where they met every Saturday for more than a year. He was white, tall and thin; she was black, short and round. They looked like a number 10. Their roles were clear: She spoke, he paid attention. In the end, an ugly chapter in the church's history was brought to light.

She told of how her congregation, the only black Presbyterian church in the Northwest, was nearly extinguished by a then all-white presbytery, the local governing body. The church was deceived, forced to integrate with a white congregation that didn't want it, and then neglected for five decades. The presbytery recently acknowledged its racism and publicly repented in a Service of Reconciliation.

"They hoped we would disappear," Dawson says plaintively.

She is 79 and the youngest of four black churchgoers still alive who lived through the upheaval. She has white hair and thick glasses that magnify attentive brown eyes. A polite smile belies her descriptions of "feeling hurt for 50 years." She says pain, carried long enough, sometimes becomes part of the body.

At the moment, she's sitting around an old walnut table in a cramped conference room at the back of Madrona Presbyterian. The church is a second home to her, but before Madrona, she worshipped at another church in the city.

Dawson was 20 when she left her small town in Alabama to attend the University of Washington. She was a converted Presbyterian and naturally gravitated to Grace Presbyterian in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the Central area, one of the oldest sections of the city and at the time predominantly black.

The wood-frame church, worn but still sturdy, looked like just another house, only bigger. Between 40 and 50 people attended regularly, many of them transplants from the South. Dawson fit right in.

"We were like a big family," she says. There were impromptu potlucks with the whole neighborhood. It was the kind of place, she says, where "if you didn't show up Sunday morning, someone would check on you Sunday afternoon."

Then in 1953, a week before Easter Sunday, the presbytery announced the church was to be sold, and the members had one week to move to the all-white Madrona Presbyterian Church half a mile down the road.

"We were shocked. We couldn't believe it," Dawson says. "Nobody talked to us beforehand, nobody asked us, prepared us. We were just told, 'This is what's going to happen.' Nobody said why."

As stunned members asked questions, the presbytery said it was being done for the purpose of integration.

To placate Grace members, the presbytery made two promises: The proceeds of the sale of Grace would be used to improve Madrona, and Grace's black pastor, the Rev. Ray Day, would become co-pastor of the newly integrated church.

Integration at Madrona lasted about a month.

Thelma Ross, 82, a tall woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a slow, halting way of talking, recalls the first Sunday at Madrona. She and her husband, Fordie, 89, were among the first Grace members to arrive. Everybody was polite, white and black, but it was a nervous politeness marked by furtive glances. Few spoke.

"We looked around and it was packed," Ross says. "The next Sunday we saw a lot of the whites had gone, and the next Sunday after that they were almost all gone. Little by little. They never came back."

In what seemed an instant, Madrona had become a black church, and the new congregants soon realized they'd inherited a sagging building. The roof was in bad shape, leaking in numerous spots. One member described the raindrops hitting all the pails scattered in the church as sounding "like Jamaican steel drums."

The money from the sale of Grace -- $6,000 -- never came. Instead, the presbytery used it to help buy land for a new church on Mercer Island, a suburban islet in the middle of Lake Washington, a few miles away.

Day was never reassigned to Madrona. He moved to Chicago and died in 1991. Fordie Ross recalls the day when the presbytery refused Day's transfer. "I've seen a lot of people cry," he says, "but I've never seen anybody cry as Ray Day cried."

For decades, the black congregation at Madrona was led by white ministers who, congregants say, didn't understand them or take them seriously.

Members told a number of the ministers what happened in 1953 in the hopes of receiving an apology or even just an acknowledgment from the presbytery that what was done to Grace was wrong. But nothing ever came of those exchanges.

The tone was set early in the relationship between pastor and congregation.

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