On Thursday, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African American as archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. For the past fourteen years he has been archbishop of Atlanta. In its report on Gregory’s appointment, the Washington Post noted that while nationally African Americans only make up 3% of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Washington archdiocese they comprise 13%.
As in other denominations in Washington, initially African Americans worshiped as miniorities within white-controlled parishes. The first Catholic church in the capital specifically for African Americans was established by free African American Catholics in 1858. Initially it was named for Blessed Martin de Porres, but it was renamed for St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African doctor of the church in 1873-74.
In downtown Washington, the church’s first location is marked by a handsome metal plaque. This is the only such marker for a vanished church that I can think of in downtown D.C. Pictures of several other destroyed churches buildings appear on the interpretive signs along the many walking trails developed by Cultural Tourism DC. They do not, however, suggest the permanency of this marker.
The Victorian Gothic building north of L Street on 15th St NW was completed in 1876 to designs by Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore architect who divided his career between Catholic churches and buildings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Perhaps his most prominent church is in Savannah, Georgia, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist designed in a French Gothic style.
When St. Augustine’s downtown building was razed in 1947 to make way for a new building for the Washington Post, the parish was merged with St. Paul’s Church, about one mile north on 15th St. at the base of Meridian Hill. The name St. Augustine’s was dropped from use at that time, but revived in 1961 when the parish was renamed St. Paul and St. Augustine. In 1982 the parish name revised again to be St. Augustine in recognition of its rule as a vibrant center of African American Catholic life. It remains so today.
Around the corner from the marker, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still stands on M Street. With stubborn heroism, its congregation has held on its building and remained downtown to exercise its role as the “National Cathedral of African Methodism.” (The building was once named to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Buildings in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). A longtime member of that congregation once told me that they missed their neighbors at St. Augustine’s. At the head of a glass-lined ally, the St. Augustine’s marker is a good reminder of the vanished landscape of nineteenth century Washington.
When introducing students to Judaism, one text I always discuss is the Shema, the passage of the Torah that is the centerpiece of Jewish daily prayer. It begins at Deuteronomy 6:4 with the words “Shema yisrael,” or in English, “Hear O Israel.” It then continues
The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, New Jewish Publication Society translation
The Shemaconcludes with the recitation of Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41. In class we usually just focus on the words in Deuteronomy 6.
When we discuss the commandment to “bind them as a sign on your hand” and “inscribe them . . . on your gates.,” I mention that this has shaped the traditional Jewish practice of wearing small boxes containing scripture (tefillin) during daily prayer and hanging a container containing it (a mezuzah) on the door post of homes. I also mention that it has shaped the front gate of their own university.
Samford’s Main Gate
The university, then known as Howard College, moved to its new campus in Shades Valley in 1957. Promotional drawings show that a gate such as graces the main entrance was part of the master plan.
However no gate was built until after the college became a university by acquiring Cumberland School of Law and was renamed, in 1965, in honor of the chair of its board of trustees, insurance executive Frank P. Samford. In gratitude for honor, Mr. and Mrs. Samford donated front gate bearing the school’s new name.
When the Alabama Baptist State Convention was debating what to rename the university, the leading rival to “Samford University” was “Alabama Baptist University.” The vote for “Samford” at the Alabama Baptist State Convention was close, 593 to 512. Perhaps as a nod to those who preferred the longer name, and definitely to reflect the school’s close tie to the convention, the new gate included the phrase “An Agency of the Alabama Baptist State Convention.”
In the late 1980s, President Thomas E. Corts grew troubled by these words. He explained in his memoir, “lawyers had taught me that ‘agency’ has special legal consequence, and the Convention would likely not want to position itself to accept ascending liability.” Convention leaders agreed and Corts replaced the agency sign “with the best quotation I could think of, a foundational statement, the statement Jesus made in response to the question: ‘What is the great commandment?'” (Corts, Legacy of Gratitude (2007), 34).
The famous passage appears three times in the New Testament. Given sign’s relatively small size, Corts chose the most concise version, Luke 10:27. “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 10:27, King James Version).
I jokingly tell my students, that the change is testament to the fact that if you want displace Baptists at Samford, you have to use the Bible. Indeed given how Samford redefined its relationship to the convention in 1994 and again in 2017, a change in the sign would have had to come, even without Corts’s concern with “agency.”
The Shema vs. The Summary of the Law
Perhaps to support the change, Corts often referred to the passage as “the Shema,” thus emphasizing its root in Deuteronomy 6 and its commandment to write God’s words “on your gates.” Referring to the passage as the Shema, however, causes confusion to those who know Hebrew or the Jewish tradition. As we’ve seen “shema” is the simply the Hebrew word for “hear,” and the passage on the gate and in the Gospel of Luke does not begin, “Hear, O Israel.” Also while the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is esteemed in Judaism just as much as it is in Christianity, it is not part of the Shema. It comes from Leviticus 19:18. Among Christians, the passage on the gate is more commonly referred to as the Greatest Commandments or the Summary of the Law.
Given the fluidity of biblical tradition, the three gospels each differ from Deuteronomy and each other in either the number, the names, or the order of the human faculties to be used to love God. Deuteronomy 6:5, “heart, . . . soul, . . . might.” Matthew 22:37, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind.” Mark 12:30, “heart, . . .soul, . . . mind, . . . strength.” Luke 10:27, “heart, . . . soul, . . . strength, . . . mind.” (These and all the quotations of scripture in this article are from the King James Version.)
When Dr. Corts had a silver mace made for the university in the early 1990s, he inscribed on the cylinder at the base of its head these words: “And thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, . . . And thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. Mark 12:30-31.” Yet, this is not an accurate quote from Mark in the King James Version. Mark includes “mind” between “soul” and “strength.” The mace omits it.
The explanation of the mace that has often appeared in the program for commencement exercises states that “the cylinder bears the Shema,” yet provides the words of the Shema as “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Commencement Program, December 2014, p. 3). In Mark 12, Jesus does begin his recitation of Deuteronomy with “Hear O Israel,” but those words do not appear on the cylinder.
The authors of the commencement program, knowing that “the Shema” is on the mace, correctly identify the opening words of the text in the Jewish tradition but by so doing wrongly identify the words on the mace. Using the Hebrew name is a nice acknowledgement that Jesus’ greatest commandments are from the Hebrew Bible. But giving the word Shema a different meaning than it has in the Jewish tradition by including Leviticus 19:18, and omitting much else especially, “Hear O Israel,” sows confusion.
The Belltower Logo and Deuteronomy 6:5
Fortunately, the habit of refering to the commandments on Samford’s gates as the Shema seems to have run its course. Attention instead has focused on the link between the first commandment on the gate and Deuteronomy 6:5. In the 2009 revision of the university’s belltower logo, the hands of the clock were positioned at 6:05 in reference to Deuteronomy 6:5. In explaining this fact Inside Samford (Spring 2016, p. 20) said that it was Deuteronomy 6:5 that was inscribed on the gate, quoting it correctly from Deuteronomy (but incorrectly from the gate) as “heart, . . . soul, and . . . might.” In Seasons, President Andrew Westmoreland also said it was Deuteronomy but the quote he provided was actually Matthew’s version “heart, . . ., soul, . . . mind” (Spring 2016, p. 2).
Since the front gate cannot be accessed by pedestrians and the scripture cannot be safely read by motorists on Lakeshore Drive it is not surprising that various understandings of what is on its sign have emerged. The version Corts chose seems best for a university since it includes “mind” and emphasizes it by placing it last. The hands of the clock could be set at 10:27 in reference to the actual text from Luke that is used, but at that angle the hands of the clock might be more distracting from the logo’s clean lines.
Founded in 1842 or 41?
Careful viewers of the photos of the gate above may have noticed that originally the gate said “Founded 1842,” but that now it has been altered to read “1841.” Indeed the fact that the final “1” in the 1841 looks different than the first suggests that the final digit has been altered even without seeing earlier photographs.
Howard College held its first classes in January 1842 and the year 1842 appeared on its seal which can still be seen in the tympanum of Davis Library or the marker near the library at the site of the flag pole given to the school by the class of 1964.
The State of Alabama, however, granted Howard College its charter on December 29, 1841. This 1841 date was used on the 1955 cornerstone for Samford Hall in 1955.
During the administration of Dr. Corts, the date on the seal and on the gate was changed to 1841 in keeping with the common practice of universities and colleges to claim as their founding date the year in which they were chartered, not the year in which they first held classes. At inaugurations and other ceremonial occasions, universities are often listed in order of founding, thus by claiming the 1841 date, Samford is now ahead of other schools founded in 1842 including the Citadel, Ohio Wesleyan, Villanova, Willamette, and, most notably, the University of Notre Dame.
Feb. 21, 2019: Statement that the gate originally had no functional gates across the roadway has been removed. I’m grateful for correspondence from David Henderson, class of 1971, informing me that there was some kind of gate used to enforce curfews for female students while he was a student. In his 2007 memoir, Dr. Corts mentions that early in his presidency there were no functional gates until they were installed in the early 1990s.
For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.
In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.
Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.
National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.
Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.
The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.
The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.
Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.
With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.
Walking along Highland Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday I saw this sign.
It is located in front of the parking lot of Temple Beth-el. The “wall” is actually a brick and iron fence installed as part of an effort to beautify the synagogue’s street front. There are no gates on the driveways that lead across into the parking lot and the synagogue’s main week-day entrance.
It will be interesting to see how the wall that President Trump may eventually claim to have built compares to that of this synagogue president.
I learned yesterday that the Birmingham Historical Society’s newest book, Shades Creek: Flowing through Timewill be released Saturday at the annual Salamander Festival sponsored by the Friends of Shades Creek. The cover photo appears to be of the portion of Shades Creek adjacent to Samford’s Intramural Fields. The rapids in the foreground are formed by a watervane Samford installed in 2010 to help stabilize the bank and improve the quality of the creek. My colleagues in our biology and environmental science programs can tell you the mixed story of that experiment’s success. They can also fill you in on the salamanders that migrate into pools adjacent to this site about this time every year.
My part in this book was sharing my research on the development of Samford’s Lakeshore campus with Marjorie White, the historical society’s long-time leader and one of the book’s principal authors. It was great to discuss the contribution tot he campusof the famous landscape architectural firm Olmsted Brothers with someone who knows so much about their work and their contribution to Birmingham. I can’t wait to read the finished product.
After Howard College, now Samford University, purchased land on the north side of Shades Creek Road, now Lakeshore Drive, in 1947, it was given the flood plain of Shades Creek which had recently been a lake by the county for a dollar. Gradually Samford sold off or developed most of that land which resulted in the channelizing of the once winding creek. The book will tell the story of this development.
Bizarrely, Google Maps still labels the lake and shows part of the creek’s winding path even though both ceased to exist before Google existed.
Part of my research on the development of Samford’s campus on the north side of Lakeshore Drive was published in Samford’s Seasons magazine in the Winter 2005 issue. You can read the four page article here. The whole issue and other issues are available are available on the Samford website. Much of the article focuses on the changes between the initial site plan prepared in 1947 by the Boston-based landscape architects, Olmsted Brothers, and the later plan that guided development to the present day. The Birmingham-based firm Van Keuren and Davis (now Davis Architects) partnered with Olmsted Brothers in the first plan, but developed the second by itself.
The initial plan arranged the main quad at an angle to Lakeshore Drive so that it was sited toward the lake. It also had separate quadrangles for men’s and women’s dorms and a back entrance on to Saulter Road. The chapel, rather than the library, was placed at the head of the main drive.
This plan was abandoned because grading the land to develop it was estimated to be too expensive. This was due in part to apparent inconsistencies between the topographic information supplied to Olmsted Brothers and the actual topography of the land. Van Keuren and Davis’s 1955 plan was more compact, more enclosed, and veered away from the traditions of landscape architecture favored by Olmsted and more toward the classical Beaux-Arts tradition.
By using a smaller portion of the site, it left more room for later development, including the eventual sale of the eastern end of the campus to Southern Progress. This land and the three large buildings now on it was repurchased in 2014 and now housed the College of Health Sciences.
The legacy of the Olmsted Brothers plan survives in few ways. These include the location of the site itself, the siting of the main entrance, and the positioning of the performing arts center near Lakeshore Drive and the west gate. Marjorie White has long championed the legacy of Olmsted Brothers and other landscape architects in Birmingham. I look forward to reading more about this in her new book.