Thomas Jefferson’s shadow and two Charlotte assemblies 

By Wayne Dawkins

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – What a difference 18 years makes.

Right now Unitarians and Universalists have gathered here for the annual general assembly. It is also the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the marriage of both denominations that have religious roots planted in America since the 17th century [Want proof? There is a Boston congregation here that was established in 1630].

So far the days of worship and workshops have been joyous, but that was not necessarily the case when UUs met here in 1993. Then, there was a racially tinged family embarrassment in this sparkling Southern metropolis.

The region serving the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia was named for Thomas Jefferson, an American founding father and 3rd U.S. president, who was profoundly influenced by Unitarianism.

Jefferson had a dark side: He was famously a slave holder and by 1993 there were numerous claims that Jefferson fathered multiple children with slave mistress Sally Hemings. Leading Jefferson scholars then dismissed Hemings questions.

At the ’93 UUA gathering, organizers scheduled a Jefferson Ball and said period piece costumes were optional. This led the Rev. Hope Johnson, an African-American woman, to ask incredulously, “what should I wear, rags and chains?”

Jefferson turned off and embarrassed many black UUs and social justice-loving whites too. Meanwhile many others revered Jefferson – virtues, flaws and all – and did not want him discarded.

So there was a great and tense debate for 18 years.

I heard about the Jefferson Ball fiasco while attending a UU church in Philadelphia. Early this decade I served on a task force that explored changing the name of the southern regional district.

Last spring, the Thomas Jefferson District name was retired and renamed the Southeast District.

Despite Jefferson’s slaveholding and duplicity, I argued against changing the district name until rational arguments changed my opinion. Why? Jefferson scholarship at the end of the 20th century got real instead of defensive. There was acknowledgement that ample evidence existed that suggested Jefferson fathered children with Hemings.

Also, as a lover of history, I appreciated the candidate interpretations of Jefferson by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson. Historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Wilkins wrote “Jefferson’s Pillow,” a fine attempt to reconcile the lofty ideals with the slaveholding ways of Virginia planters and U.S. presidents Jefferson, Washington and Madison. Efforts to investigate Jefferson with honesty and integrity mitigated his faults.

Jefferson acknowledged that slavery contradicted soaring words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence. The condition he said was akin to “holding a wolf by the ears,” and said future generations would have to abolish slavery, which happened.

A conversation with a member of my Newport News, Va. congregation changed my mind. Jefferson never joined the Unitarian church; he was greatly influenced by Joseph Priestly, the English radical who also influenced numerous founding fathers.

Early arguments from other people that essentially said get rid of Jefferson because he hindered our church movement’s ability to attract people of color offended me. Recently, the robust democratic discussion by our members about why it made sense to change our name to the Southeast District was inspiring.

Of the 4,030 attendees here, 1,400 are from the Southland region, which includes the new Southeast District. I’m representing my congregation as one of three voting delegates. For the first time many people from my fellowship – a total of 17 – are here to witness the magic of a UUA General Assembly.

Indeed what a difference 18 years makes.