Friday, April 29, 2016

The Wendell Phillips Pew in the Old Stone Church

Last fall, after a gathering at the Drake Community Library at which Edith Renfrow shared some of her memories of growing up in Grinnell, Larry German approached me, and asked if I knew anything about a pew in Grinnell's Old Stone Church that had been reserved especially for African Americans. His question surprised me; knowing the strongly abolitionist sentiments of J. B. Grinnell and the early Grinnell community, I could not conceive of what sounded like segregation inside the walls of Grinnell's founding Congregationalist church. But Larry told me that he had helped empty out the old church prior to its 1951 demolition, and that he himself had carried out of the church a pew whose end supports contained inscriptions that reserved the pew for African Americans. I knew nothing about any such pew, and wondered how such a thing could have come about.
1951 demolition of Grinnell's Old Stone Church (courtesy Digital Grinnell)
Having begun to investigate the question, I quickly discovered that histories of Grinnell's Congregational Church admit that the Old Stone Church had indeed included what was known as the "Wendell Phillips Pew." The 1955 centennial history of the church, for example, acknowledged the Phillips pew, "which was endowed by the great abolitionist and preacher on condition that it be ever free to members of the colored race. The pew was marked at each end with a silver plate." But where are those plates? And how did the Stone Church come to have a pew reserved for the town's African Americans?
Perhaps it's best to start with Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), an activist whose causes included woman's suffrage, the rights of native Americans, and especially abolitionism. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard University, Phillips began his career as a lawyer, but was soon won over to the anti-slavery cause of which he became a chief spokesperson. An indefatigable traveler, Phillips seems to have met nearly everyone of note in nineteenth-century America; one of those contacts was J. B. Grinnell, with whom Phillips regularly exchanged correspondence and who was responsible for bringing Phillips to Grinnell. 

Phillips evidently first visited Grinnell in 1860 when the fledgling community was still struggling. To help support the endeavor, Phillips loaned the local Congregational society $300. In December, 1877 Phillips returned to Grinnell, delivering three addresses (including one at the College) over a long weekend. By this time, interest on the original loan had enlarged the sum outstanding to more than $700. According to L. F. Parker's 1907 history of the Grinnell Congregational Church, Phillips used one of his 1877 addresses to announce "that he would surrender all that claim on one condition, viz. that the seat now numbered '109' and '91' [in the then-new Stone Church] should be set apart as one to which colored people should always be entitled if they should wish to occupy it. It was to be theirs exclusively if they should so choose that instead of any other, but they were not to be excluded from any place in the house." A story in the May 29th Grinnell Independent gave a slightly different reading: in exchange for having forgiven the loan, Phillips "was given the privilege of selecting a pew in the new church, which he did, choosing pew 109, north middle aisle, to be free for all without regard to race, color or condition."
Mathew Brady daguerrotype of Wendell Phillips (ca. 1850) (Library of Congress)
Already in 1877 someone had raised the idea of making "a fitting memorial of this generous deed of one whose whole life has been full of benevolence," but apparently no formal action on this sentiment took place before the 1904 annual meeting of the church. Congregational Church records report that at that meeting "The trustees of the church were made a committee to put the name of Wendell Phillips on the pew that had been selected by the great abolitionist during his life for the special use of the colored people."
Undated photograph of the interior of Old Stone Church (Courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections)
I have said before in this blog that our preoccupation with the present often makes it difficult to understand a past that was in fact very different from our own experience; the Phillips pew nicely illustrates the point. The narrative above, for example, seems to point, confusingly, to a segregationist seating policy in a church whose founders were profoundly abolitionist. In the nineteenth century, however, it was common practice for churches to "rent" pews to parishioners, in that way generating income to cover costs of maintaining the facility. Just a few months prior to Phillips's 1877 visit, for instance, the Grinnell Herald reported that "at the renting of the seats of the Congregational Church, Monday evening, the sittings went of[f] like hot cakes at prices considerably in advance of previous years. The rentals will probably reach nearly $3000," the paper concluded. The following May the newspaper reported again that "bidding for choice [of seats in the Congregational Church] was lively and seats to the amount of more than $2200 were taken before the close of sale." In this context, then, Phillips's donation provided Grinnell's Congregationalist African Americans with a pew without their having to rent one, if they so chose. Put another way, the donation privileged Grinnell's African Americans, sparing them the cost of renting a pew.

But what happened to the silver plates on which Phillips's name had been inscribed and which had been attached to the pew Phillips had chosen? As the church history reported, when the Old Stone Church came down in 1951, the silver plates were donated to the Grinnell Historical Museum, an institution that had then only recently been founded and which had no physical home of its own. For a time donated articles were stored upstairs in the College's Goodnow Hall, but in 1954 the Grinnell Historical Museum began to occupy the rooms above Cunningham's Drug Store on 4th Avenue. Many of the original donations were transferred from Goodnow Hall to the new museum home over the course of the summer. At 3 PM October 8, 1954 the Museum held its formal opening for the season, but disaster was just around the corner. As the Grinnell Herald-Register of October 11 reported, "Eleven hours [after the opening], every tapestry, chair, picture, bed, table and hundreds of other prized articles had been destroyed or were in the process of being destroyed" by a fire that had begun overnight in the upper stories of the building. Before firemen could subdue the blaze, the roof had burned out and most of the second and third floors had been destroyed, finally collapsing through the floor onto the drug store below. The entire building was judged a loss and abandoned, later to be replaced by the one-story structure that now occupies the space immediately to the west of Merchants National Bank.
Grinnell Herald-Register front page, October 11, 1954
Although at the time of the fire many museum records and some articles had not yet been delivered to the new facilities, almost everything then housed in the 4th Avenue location was lost to the inferno. An August 26 newspaper article introducing the museum had itemized numerous prized acquisitions, including the "leaded glass window from the west door of the old Congregational Church," but did not mention the Wendell Phillips pew plates. Did they share the fate of other museum artifacts? None of the news reports provided a list of items known to have been destroyed by the fire, nor did they enumerate articles spared, so the fate of the Phillips pew plates cannot be learned from press reports of the blaze.

Examination of current museum records also reveals no trace of the plates; so far as I could find, not even a photograph of the plates survives, so that it seems likely that, unless the silver plates merited space in a bank safety deposit box (in which the museum did store some records and valuables), the plates were destroyed by the 1954 fire. But of course that is only an inference; perhaps the plates may one day surface among items so far not inventoried in the Museum collection. Or perhaps someone at the scene of the fire found the plates and, knowing their significance, saved them.

In that case, at some point in the future we may retell the story of how Wendell Phillips came to Grinnell, and endowed a pew in the Old Stone Church for the use of African Americans.

No comments:

Post a Comment