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The Black Humanist Fellowship

In 1951, the congregation of First Unitarian Church of Cleveland decided to move from its building at the corner of 82nd and Euclid in downtown Cleveland to suburban Shaker Heights. This move was motivated by the economic decline of the Hough (pronounced "how") neighborhood where the church was located. In 1904, when the church was built, the neighborhood had been one of the wealthiest in the entire country. By 1951, much of Cleveland's middle and upper class was moving out to the suburbs, and the neighborhood was in a slow and steady decline. African American families were moving in and white families were moving out.

Roughly 300 members of the 1200-member congregation opposed the move to Shaker Heights, believing it was important that a Unitarian voice remain in the City of Cleveland. They bought the downtown church building from First Church and organized the Unitarian Society of Cleveland.

The newly organized Society ordained and called the Reverend Jesse Cavileer as its first minister and engaged in the work of an urban church. By the time the Society called the Reverend Farley Wheelwright as its fourth minister in 1968 it had earned a reputation as a congregation that worked for civil rights, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and fought for social justice. It was also an integrated congregation with a membership that was about 10 percent African American.

By the time Wheelwright arrived, tensions had developed between the church and the neighborhood. In a May 21, 1969, letter to the Society's Board of Trustees, Wheelwright described the situation of the congregation this way:

The problem... our almost total lack of relationship with to (the neighborhood). In the past year we have had robberies, muggings, gun hold-ups, threatened rape... The building we acquired for the parking lot was set afire. Last Monday I was pelleted with empty coke bottles and told 'get out of the neighborhood!' I got.

In the same letter Wheelwright began to ruminate on a possible solution to the Society's problem. He wrote:

I think it might be possible for us to relate to this community by staffing the Unitarian Society with a Black Minister to the Community. He would be charged with building black liberal religious constituency and ministering to the neighborhood...

At the same time, the Unitarian Universalist Association was considering what they called an "Experimental Ghetto Ministry." In September, 1969, the UUA contracted with the Reverend John Frazier to "develop a meaningful, relevant and empowering religious community in the ghetto;" Frazier came to Cleveland shortly afterward to begin this ministry.

In Cleveland, Frazier organized the Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation which was initially made up primarily of members of the local chapter of BUUC. BUUC, the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, was the local chapter of the national organization of the same name, an organization committed to the philosophy of Black Power or Black Nationalism. Members of this chapter of BUUC were African American Unitarian Universalists from the Unitarian Society of Cleveland and other area Unitarian Universalist congregations. Wheelwright continued to lead the Unitarian Society of Cleveland while Frazier led the Fellowship, a congregation within a congregation.

Wheelwright, a white man, was 50 in 1968. He had been active in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr. (before his assassination, King had been scheduled to preach Wheelwright's installation sermon) and he was familiar with other nationally known civil rights leaders. He had come to Cleveland because he was interested in serving an inner city church with a social justice ministry.

Frazier was just 28 when he moved to Cleveland. He was fresh out of school and had never served a Unitarian Universalist congregation as its settled minister. Frazier, too, had been active in the Civil Rights movement, and had first met Wheelwright several years earlier when the two had been in Mississippi. Frazier had been impressed by the commitment of the Unitarians of Jackson, Mississippi to the struggle for racial equality and had joined the Unitarian church in Jackson. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Frazier had enrolled in Crane Theological School. While Frazier was in seminary, Wheelwright, who was serving a nearby congregation, became one of his benefactors and mentors. After Frazier's graduation, Wheelwright had raised money so Frazier could spend a year studying at Manchester College, the Unitarian seminary that is part of Oxford University in England.

Ordained in 1969, Frazier was one of the first dozen African Americans to serve as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Prior to coming to Cleveland, he had been considered for pulpits in Philadelphia and in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Correspondence between Frazier and one of the search committees indicates that racism on the part of some church members had at least something to do with why he had not been called to either of those congregations.

In the summer of 1969, just as Frazier was set to begin his ministry in Cleveland, the relationship between the Society and the Hough neighborhood deteriorated even further. Two women were attacked in the congregation's parking lot in June. People, particularly families with children, were resigning from the congregation's membership and Sunday morning attendance was dwindling.

Wheelwright drafted a memo to the Unitarian Society of Cleveland's governing board. In the memo, Wheelwright laid out several possible options for the congregation's governing board and membership to consider. The last one was to: "Turn the 82nd Street Unitarian Society of Cleveland over lock, stock and barrel to a Black Unitarian movement, with the initial leadership coming from BUUC."

At two consecutive congregational meetings in late 1969, the Unitarian Society of Cleveland voted, along fairly narrow margins, to give its building and a substantive portion of its endowment to BUUC and the Black Humanist Fellowship. A court case ensued, but on March 1, 1970 the deed was transferred from the Unitarian Society of Cleveland to BUUC. According to an agreement worked out between the two organizations, the Society was to be allowed to continue to meet in the church building as long as it wished to do so. BUUC and the Black Humanist Fellowship were to manage the day-to-day operation of the building.

Attendance at the Society's services continued to dwindle. By early 1971, a decision was made to move the congregation to Cleveland Heights. After the move, the Society's membership plummeted and by 1972 it was no longer able to retain a full time minister.

After taking control of the building in 1970, the Black Humanist Fellowship received significant financial support from the Unitarian Universalist Association and a number of other granting agencies. The Fellowship's first annual congregational meeting on November 29, 1970, recorded a membership of 96 adults and a youth program with about 30 participants. At that time the congregation's stated purpose was:

1) To be a summing point for community involvement; and

2) To create through the people, a seven (7) day a week religious model.

How the Fellowship would fulfill its stated purpose was never entirely clear. While the congregation was initially able to generate a lot of enthusiasm, it was never able to develop a focus. Within the first year a theater, a drug addiction clinic, a store for African art, clothes and literature, an educational program, and a counseling center were planned. Somehow, funding for most of these programs was secured. The National Endowment for the Arts supported the theater program. The Unitarian Universalist Association paid for the minister and administrator's salaries. The Fellowship staff grew to six people.

No plan was developed to raise the funds necessary to keep the Fellowship operating from year to year or to make its programs sustainable. The Fellowship sought grant money constantly, but members of the congregation were not required to make substantive financial contributions to the community; pledging goals were set at only one percent of members' monthly incomes. Several fund raising efforts were held—Lionel Hampton did a benefit concert—but none of these generated sufficient funds to pay for the congregation's operating budget, maintain the building, and support its staff. By the end of 1971, only twenty months after taking possession of the building, the Fellowship was actively trying to sell parts of it. Pictures of the church's four Tiffany windows were sent to auction houses and museums across the country. A plan was formulated to sell the pews and chancel. Because the congregation was unable to generate enough cash, its staff began to resign.

At the same time, the Fellowship was hemorrhaging members. The 1971 annual congregational meeting minutes report a membership of 36, only 14 of whom were present. Instead of adjusting the congregation's plans to its changing circumstances and resources, the projected budget ballooned. The planned budget for 1973 was over 130,000 dollars.

The congregation never developed a deep religious life. The worship services, when they happened, were greatly varied. More often than not they consisted of theater performances, drumming, and lectures by outside speakers. Alcohol was frequently served after the services. Throughout the minutes of the Fellowship's board meetings are frequent references to poor service attendance.

The Fellowship folded not long after its outside funding ran out. Frazier left Cleveland in 1974 and the Unitarian Universalist Association's last record of the Fellowship is from 1979. At that time it had 17 members.

Several factors help explain why the Fellowship collapsed so quickly. By the mid 70s, the Unitarian Universalist Association's interest in experimental urban ministries had declined. Funding was no longer available to pay Frazier's salary or support the activities of the Fellowship. The national mood had shifted and political radicalism had fallen into a decline. The Empowerment Controversy within the UUA had left many African Americans disheartened with Unitarian Universalism and uninterested in liberal religion. It would be years before the Association turned significant attention to healing these wounds.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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