Lynching and the Virginia Peninsula

Newport News, Virginia
William Allen 12.05.1881
Fred Tinsley 06.09.1902
Unknown 12.09.1909

So reads the single monument to racial terror lynchings on the lower Virginia Peninsula at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the genius of the memorial is its focus on place. The individuals remembered are organized by state and county. Soil from lynching sites is exhibited in the memorial and in the Legacy Museum. I, like I expect most visitors, was drawn to see how my home figured in this story. For me this meant, in part, Jefferson County, Alabama, where I have lived for nearly 20 years. Even more, however, it meant the cities in which I was born and raised and which I visit several times every year, Hampton and Newport News, Virginia.

The alphabetical arrangements of the memorials place those from Virginia on the inside row of the memorial. Here some hang freely above the memorial square. They are also exposed to the weather. When I visited in October 2018, just six months after the memorial opened, the one for Newport News was already streaked with stains from water flowing off the roof.

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National Memorial for Peace and Justice, October 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

Thankfully, lynchings were less common in Virginia than in Alabama. Unfortunately they still occurred. On the lower Peninsula, no lynchings were recorded in the areas that are now the cities of Hampton, Poquoson, and Williamsburg, nor in the counties of York and James City. Three occurred in what was once Warwick County and is now the independent city of Newport News.

Newport News Lynchings

Professor Gianluca De Fazio and his colleagues at James Madison University have begun to tell the stories of these lynchings at the website Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927.  Each lynching was connected to events in the young city of Newport News. A New South success story, Newport News suddenly sprang to life in 1881 when Collis P. Huntington brought the railroad down the Peninsula to create an deep water terminus on the Atlantic for his Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Many flocked to the city and its offer of economic opportunity. In the 1920s, their numbers included all four of my own grandparents. With Newport News’s boom in industry, commerce, and population also came social upheaval and disorder. As the Peninsula’s largest and newest municipality it is not surprising that Newport News was also the site of all its known lynchings.

The first occurred less than two months after the railroad was completed. William Allen, an African American man, was accused of killing a white man by stabbing on December 2, 1881. Placed in the Warwick County jail, he was transferred to the Elizabeth County jail in Hampton on December 6, reportedly “in order that the lynchers might get hold of the prisoner with less trouble.” While he was being transferred a party of men seized him and “hung him by a tree” somewhere in Warwick County. In 1881 the seat of Warwick County was in Denbigh, but the location of the lynching is unknown.

Twenty-two years later, Fred Tinsley’s body was found hanging from a tree on June 9, 1902, on Briarfield Road. He had apparently paid unwanted attention to Mary Gilman, a white woman in Newport News. A coroner determined that he had been strangled with a belt and then hung. Briarfield Road is still a well-used thoroughfare and the home of Heritage High School. At that time it was a country road running south of Newmarket Creek and its wetlands through land distant from the railroad.

Briarfield Road Map
Annotated detail from 1931 printing of 1907 U.S. Geological Survey map. Newport News is located off the bottom edge of this map at the intersection of the railroads. Source: https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/img4/ht_icons/Browse/VA/VA_Hampton_188161_1907_62500.jpg

The third African American victim of lynching in Warwick County was an unidentified man who was lynched in December 1909. The details of this case are less clear. According to the Newport News Daily Press he had attacked a white woman on Briarfield Road and was strung up by his heels by a posse of white men and riddled with bullets on December 19. By contrast, Washington Post reported that he was hanged on December 9. Regardless of the details, it like the other lynchings were acts of terrorism that helped reinforce racial hierarchy.

While the Montgomery memorial includes only African Americans who were victims of racial terror lynchings, the JMU website lists one additional lynching in Warwick County. William Watts, the white son of a Lynchburg police officer, and a newcomer to the Newport News was arrested for criminally assaulting a white woman. He was taken from the Warwick County jail in Newport News on January 5 and shot to death before a crowd of hundreds. As in the other Newport News cases, a criminal investigation was undertaken, but no one was convicted of the lynching.

Lynching and the Peninsula’s Landscape of Memory

In order to help “change the built environment” of places where lynching occurred so that it “more honestly reflect our history,” the designers of the Montgomery memorial prepared duplicate monuments. These will be given to communities to erect in their own places  of those in the memorial to be claimed by communities throughout the country in order to erect them in their own communities. I know that the effort to do this in Jefferson County, Alabama, where I live, is well underway. I have not yet seen notice of such efforts in Newport News. Given that Newport News was the economic engine that drove the entire Peninsula during much of the twentieth-century, this seems to be a task in which the entire region might share, not just one city.

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Newport News in Memorial Park waiting to be claimed. National Memorial for Peace and Justice, October 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

The Peninsula rightly celebrates its contributions to the causes of racial equality, peace, and justice through “Freedom’s Fortress,” the Emancipation Oak, Hampton University, NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” and the contribution of its military bases and shipyard to the defeat of fascism. We also have models for acknowledging the underside of history in Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretation of slavery and in the telling of the story of African American mathematicians at NASA. As I discussed in an earlier post, the memorial in Montgomery seems successful in being a memorial “for peace and justice.” By acknowledging and lamenting the past, it calls for action in the present. How this can be done successfully through the erections of its monuments in localities throughout the country remains to be seen. I hope to see folks on the Peninsula try.

A “Memorial for . . .”

I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for the first time last week. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, and memorializing victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States, its very name suggests its novel character and moving mission. Its form evokes deep experiences of both remembrance and empowerment.

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National Memorial for Peace and Justice, view from the North, October 18, 2018. Designed by MASS Design Group for the Equal Justice Institute.

“For” not “to”

Generally our memorials bare the names of past events or persons as in the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sometimes they are simply known by their location as in the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The reality they remember is seemingly is too hard to name. Occasionally, the preposition “to” is used. The names of Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Memorial to the Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia suggest that they are in some sense an offering, in these cases an offering of reparation.

When the word “memorial” is connected with a present reality, however, the word “to” can cause problems. Thus was in 1964 when President Johnson suggested at the National Prayer Breakfast that a “memorial to God” be built in Washington, D.C. Johnson intended it as a physical extension of the piety that had brought the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance a decade earlier and that had enabled Martin Luther King to link God and American freedom in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial six months earlier. But “memorial to God” was a “semantic blunder.” It was wrong, a Methodist editor explained because it “speaks of God in the past tense” (New York Times, March 15, 1964). The idea was quickly abandoned.

Hike (1 of 1)-2While many headlines announcing the Montgomery memorial’s opening in April 2018 referred to it as “a lynching memorial,” Bryan Stevenson and the other developers of the memorial did not choose this name. Many memorials are silent as to the proper response to the events they recall. Their purpose is to remember, sometimes to celebrate. They expose a tragedy or extol a hero, but the response they desire is less clear. One thinks in this respect of the simple list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or even the more heroic arches and wreaths of the World War II Memorial. In contrast this is a memorial is unambiguous about its purpose to encourage peace and justice.

A Path to Walk

Visitors encounter it through a clear processional path that leads them both around and through all sides of the square, colonnaded, hilltop temple. While the memorial looks like a place to go it, it is actually a path to walk. In this respect, the memorial is more like an interpretive museum than a static monument. NMPJ-0145Walking south along the memorial’s west side, visitors read signs that explain the development of the story from slavery, through emancipation and reconstruction, to segregation enforced by the racial terror of lynching, to the present day when African Americans are “overrepresented in prisons and jails and underrepresented in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system.” A statuary group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo vividly depicts the horror of family separation and enslaved person’s defiant humanity.

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Then, instructed that the memorial’s purpose is to “inspire individuals, communities, and this nation to claim our difficulty history and commit to a just a peaceful future,” visitors reverse their steps, to ascend to the memorial itself and walk clockwise with the sun where rust-covered corten steel boxes present the visitor with the names of counties and those lynched in them.

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Many other writers have described how the rows of memorial boxes, each about as tall as a man transition from a forest of columns through which one walks to symbols of hanging corpses above one’s head as one descends the slope on the memorial square’s northern side. It is a moving and overwhelming experience.

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The Comfort of Mountain and Cave

I was struck by the architects’ incorporation of the archetypal experiences of mountain and cave. Ascending the hill, visitors are bathed in the breeze and the sun or the wind and the rain and look down on the valley of the Alabama River and downtown Montgomery. The dome of the State Capitol is just visible between other buildings. But then they descend into the shaded third and fourth sides of the memorial square. There the path proceeds below memorials that loom above and along brief summaries of individual stories, to a memorial wall covered with flowing water.

This cooler, shadowed section provides some comfort, reassurance and shelter from the weather. The flow of the water down the wall only to disappear beneath the floor reminded me of a sinking spring in a cave. In particular I thought of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace where John Russell Pope’s hilltop temple sheltering the log cabin sits above the steps that descend into the cave with the spring that provided water for the Lincolns.

While the narrative of the memorial is all about the insecurity of victims of racism and the injustice they received, the very form of the memorial arouses the human experience of security. The promontory provides information and advantage on the threats below. The cave with its spring provides shelter and refreshment. The memorial puts visitors in primordial places of power so that they are pushed forward “for peace and justice.”

The Field of Action

With a drinking fountain and an exhortation to love, defiance, and self-respect from Toni Morrison visitors exit the cave and the memorial square into the southern sky over an unshaded field.

Here the struggle for peace and justice resumes. Visitors again reverse themselves to walk counter-clockwise through duplicates of the memorials that hang inside. They are waiting to be reclaimed by counties across the nation that make plans to remember racial terror in their landscape. The future placement of these boxes in locations across the nation will extend the memorial’s presence and help it remake the story told by the built landscape of the south as its planners propose. Earning the right to reclaim the box requires tangible efforts toward peace and justice. Thus immediately upon leaving the memorial square, visitors have something to do.

It will be interesting to see how the absence of some boxes and the presence of others is interpreted by the memorials architects and visitors in the future. For now, with a church wonderfully named the Old Ship of Zion standing outside the fence, the field feels like a graveyard.

To exit the memorial visitors continue counter-clockwise along three sides of the square. Once again they overlook the city with its towers of finance and government and a historic house of worship in the foreground. A statue of individuals sticking their hands up out of a block of concrete provides a final suggestion of the contemporary needs for peace and justice.

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Church of Christ on Catoma Street built as a synagogue for Kahl Montgomery in 1862 and Renasant Bank Tower built in 1907, re-clad in 1978, as viewed from the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

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The spiral from the hillside out into the city for action reminded me of the concluding stanzas of a hymn for social justice written during the height of racial terror.

O Master, from the mountain side,
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again;

Till all the world shall learn thy love,
and follow where thy feet have trod;
till glorious from thy heaven above,
shall come the city of our God.

Frank Mason North (1905)

Details on the Service for Matthew Shepard at Washington National Cathedral

The Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance for Matthew Shepard at Washington National Cathedral will be webcast on the cathedral’s website on Friday, October 26. It is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. EDT, but webcasts of the cathedral’s services often begin earlier in order to include musical preludes. The service in the cathedral is open to the public, all are invited. Following the service, Shepard’s ashes will be interred in the cathedral’s crypt in a private service.

The cathedral typically publishes the order of its services on its website on the day of the service. Conspirare, an internationally recognized choir based in Austin, Texas, has announced that they will perform selections from Considering Matthew Shepard during the service. They will also perform a 45-minute program in the nave at the end of the service while the private interment takes place in the crypt. The public is invited to remain in the nave in reflection and prayer during this time.

As I explained in an earlier post, Shepard’s remains will join those of over 200 others in the cathedral, but his will be the first of a national figure not closely connected to the cathedral’s life in fifty years.

The service will be led by the bishop of Washington, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde and the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, former bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay man elected a bishop of The Episcopal Church.

While the twenty-year delay between Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998, and the placement of his remains in the cathedral is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Eighty-two years transpired between the death of the Right Reverend Thomas J. Claggett in 1816 and their interment on the newly purchased cathedral grounds in 1898. Claggett was the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The Diocese of Washington was partitioned from the Maryland diocese in 1895. Admiral George Dewey’s body was also moved to the cathedral from Arlington National Cemetery nine years after his 1917 death.

In the early years of the cathedral’s life, only full-body burials were considered and the cathedral was limited by law to four burials per year. At this time, interment at the cathedral was a closely guarded honor. Presently, the cathedral publicizes two interment locations, the columbarium in its crypt, and the memorial garden in the garth on the cathedral’s north side. While applications for interment still must be approved by the cathedral’s dean and chapter, this suggests a more open approach.

Birthplace of Mary Baker Eddy

On a recent Sunday afternoon my wife and I were driving north from Manchester, New Hampshire, on state route 3A when we saw a sign announcing the birthplace of Mary Baker Eddy.

Since I’m a historian of American religion and we taking the old road to see the 20180930-1404countryside, I turned up the narrow road. Paved with unlined asphalt and shaded by overhanging trees, it immediately reminded me of the road to Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont, which we had visited on a similar trip over a decade ago. I wondered if there would be Christian Scientists at the birthplace eager to tell us about Mrs. Eddy as there were Latter-day Saint missionaries eager to tell us about the prophet.

But before I could think too much about whether I really wanted to have that conversation, and how the declining nature of this movement made that unlikely,  we were at the end of the road. And not only were there no Christian Scientists, there was no building, only an informational sign, a few benches, an open field, and visible foundations of the old homestead.

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Interstate 93 runs immediately to the west of the birthplace and the constant roar of the traffic diluted the peaceful scene a bit. But the view eastward toward the Merrimack River is rewarding and conjures the peacefulness of rural life that this largely urban religious tradition reverenced.

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The birthplace site and informational sign is at the site marked in red.

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I believe the site is maintained by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Concord, but there is little information on it online. If you want to visit, the site is located in Bow, New Hampshire and its location is marked on Facebook.

 

Matthew Shepard and the History of the Interment the Dead in Washington National Cathedral

matthew-shepard-300x197On National Coming Out Day, October 11, Washington National Cathedral announced that the remains of Matthew Shepard would be interred in its crypt following a public service of thanksgiving and remembrance on October 26, 2018. Shepard died on October 12, 1998, from severe injuries sustained in what many believe was an anti-gay hate crime. He has become a symbol and inspiration for the cause of LGBTQ equality.

Officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, the cathedral is the chief church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the ceremonial seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The cathedral has always offered itself to the nation as the symbolic center of its religious life, or in the words of its current tagline, “a spiritual home for the nation.”

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Part of its ministry is to be a place of burial for notable figures in national and church life. Since the cathedral’s site was purchased in 1898, the remains of over 200 Americans have been interred there. Most received this honor because of their direct role in the cathedral’s life. They include clergy, musicians, artists, architects, engineers, and benefactors. Others, including President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral George Dewey, and humanitarian Helen Keller, were figures of national significance. Shepard will be the first such national figure interred in the cathedral since Keller’s funeral fifty years ago.

“America’s Westminster Abbey”

The reasons for this fifty-year gap can be found in the cathedral’s changing role in national life. In my research for book on the representation of religion in Washington, D.C., I have discovered that as Episcopalians sought to build the cathedral in the early twentieth-century, its promoters envisioned it as a resting place for America’s noble dead. Accordingly, they called it “America’s Westminster Abbey” and actively sought for famous Americans to be buried there.

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A ghostly George Washington overlooks the National Cathedral from _Build the National Cathedral_ (Washington, D.C.: National Cathedral Foundation, 1923).

This yielded several prominent burials, including President Wilson’s in 1924 and the removal of the body of Admiral Dewey from Arlington National Cemetery to the cathedral in 1925. Only with Wilson’s burial did large number of visitors first come to cathedral, which then consisted of only a single crypt chapel.

Businessman-turned-bishop James E. Freeman (in office, 1923-43) was particularly zealous in seeking interment of the famous. Soon after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Freeman urged Roosevelt, a loyal Episcopalian, to designate the cathedral as his final resting place. The president rebuffed the offer. The day he learned that former secretary of state and Nobel peace laureate Frank Kellogg was being buried in the cathedral, Roosevelt took time to set down his own plans for outdoor burial at his Hyde Park, New York, home (Geoffrey Ward, Before the Trumpet, 1-3). Freeman’s efforts led Time magazine to report that he was known as the “body-snatcher” (May 9, 1932). The heirs of Thomas Edison, Jane Addams, and Andrew Mellon also declined Freeman’s offers. Others gladly accepted them. The cathedral shelters the remains of three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kellogg (d. 1937), secretary of state Cordell Hull (d. 1953) and international churchman John R. Mott (d. 1955).

Helen Keller’s 1968 interment was arranged long in advance. When her equally famous teacher Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936, Freeman offered the cathedral as her final resting place to her heirs. Keller wished to for her own remains to rest with those of her beloved teacher and so her remains were placed in the cathedral’s private columbarium following a public service in 1968.

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Entrance to the Columbarium

In 1980 a plaque honoring them both was installed near the entrance to the columbarium.

From Burials to Funerals

After World War II the cathedral gradually grew larger in size. The main floor of its interior was completed in 1976. The completed structure was dedicated in 1990. As a large building that sought to be a church for the nation, the cathedral hosted an increasing number of funerals for national figures including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1959 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969. This ministry has continued to the present, as the recent funeral of Senator John McCain bears witness.

The cathedral’s place in the landscape and ceremonial life of Washington secured, its interior richly decorated with representations of Christian and American history, burials of national figures were no longer important for securing the cathedral’s national status. Also, in most cases famous Americans were like Franklin Roosevelt, they preferred to be buried close to home, often in outside cemeteries. McCain’s body left the cathedral to be buried with his classmates in Annapolis, similarly the bodies of presidents Reagan and Ford left the cathedral to return to their home states.

Matthew Shepard

Nonetheless, the decision of Shepard’s parents to lay their son to rest in the cathedral shows that in exceptional cases, Washington National Cathedral can still serve as a place of national sepulcher. It was precisely because the usual American practice of outdoor burial in a home town did not serve in their situation that they chose the cathedral. His parents explained to CNN that when Shepard was killed in 1998, they were living overseas. They did not want to bury his remains halfway around the world. They also expected his grave may become a place of pilgrimage and did not want it to be “a nuisance to other families in a cemetery.”

For the Shepards, the identity of the cathedral as an Episcopal church was also important. Matthew was an Episcopalian and he felt welcomed and accepted by his church in Wyoming. The Shepards have also found Episcopal leaders such as Gene Robinson, who was consecrated as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003, to be important partners in the work of the Mathew Shepard Foundation. “It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world” said his mother Judy Shepard in a statement.

Memorializing Shepard

Such a vision of peace and love has long been part of the cathedral’s ministry, but if and how Shepard will be publicly memorialized remains to be determined. With the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s body, which is in a sarcophagus in the nave, the remains of most of the cathedral’s dead are housed in the crypt or subcrypt, outside of public view. This will also be the case with Shepard’s. Most of the cathedral’s dead do not have memorials in the public sections of the church. Others have tablets or sculptures at various places in the church. Most, such as Keller’s, are simple inscriptions. Some are linked thematically to particular windows or other works of art as in the case of the “Universal Peace” window that memorializes Secretary of State Kellogg.

One intriguing possibility for Shepard are stained glass windows dedicated to him or the cause of LGBTQ equality. For many years the windows of the cathedral were complete. In September 2017, however, the cathedral’s leadership removed windows dedicated to the Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These windows were located in a particularly prominent and accessible location, at floor-level, near main entrance to the nave, next to Wilson’s tomb. A memorial to Shepard and the causes he has come to represent in this location could indeed become a place of pilgrimage.

There are many forms that such windows might take. Shepard has been the subject of many works of art including “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard” by Carl Grauer. This portrait is striking for its use of conventional religious imagery to honor Shepard. The memorialization of Shepard is a challenging project. He came to fame because he was a victim, but he is honored by those who in the words of his mother seek a “safer, kinder world.” His interment in the cathedral gives it a new opportunity to advance this goal.

The 2018 Red Mass for the Supreme Court

The annual Roman Catholic mass marking the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term proceeded yesterday without some of its usual leaders. Most years, the archbishop of Washington presides and a bishop from another diocese preaches. But yesterday, Washington’s auxiliary bishop Mario Dorsonville presided in the place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Monsignor Peter Vaghi preached in place of the originally scheduled Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre.

Both Wuerl and Barres were criticized last month by a Pennsylvania grand jury for their handling of sexual abuse allegations while they were bishops of dioceses in that state. The accusations against Wuerl were more extensive and he has recently journeyed to Rome to discuss his resignation with Pope Francis. Today, the Washington Post reported new evidence suggesting Wuerl’s knowledge of sexual misconduct by his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Still, the liturgy provided an important opportunity for Catholics and others to engage in civil religious piety and protest. Katherine Frey of the Washington Post captured an image of a Virginia woman kissing the hand of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as he entered the cathedral. Her colleague Julia Zauzmer reported on others attempting to hand pink “I believe Christine Blasey” buttons to worshipers.

Monsignor Vaghi, the substitute preacher, is the long time chaplain of the John Carroll society which sponsors the liturgy, former pastor of St. Patrick’s Washington’s oldest Catholic church and current pastor of Little Flower parish in suburban Bethesda. His sermon, as reported by Crux, urged the need for national unity, the role of Holy Spirit in achieving this, and the “self-evident” divinely ordained truths of natural law on which the country was founded. It was a classic uniting text of American civil religion offered at a tumultuous moment in the life of the nation and its highest court.

Members of the supreme court attending the liturgy were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. The recently retired Anthony Kennedy also attended the service. His embattled would-be successor Brett Kavanaugh was not seen there. The Red Mass takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for votive masses of the Holy Spirit. The tradition of such masses marking the beginning of judicial terms dates to the fourteenth century, but the D.C. tradition only to 1939. Over the years, various denominations have offered special services for government officials in Washington, but the Red Mass is the only annual service that still claims a prominent place in Washington’s civil religious rituals. While Roberts, Thomas, and Kennedy are Roman Catholic, the service succeeds in claiming the attendance of non-Catholic leaders as well including Sessions, a United Methodist, and Breyer, who is Jewish.