What Unitarian Universalists can learn from the handling of the controversial Thomas Jefferson costume ball at the 1993 UUA General Assembly.
© 2018 Pat Kinsella
There were vague rumors of trouble brewing in the days leading up to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in 1993, yet besides a small number of black UUs and some others, few seemed to know what it might be about.
That year marked Thomas Jefferson’s 250th birthday. Since host city Charlotte, North Carolina, was in the then-named Thomas Jefferson District of the UUA and near his plantation, the Rev. Wayne Arnason, then minister at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, suggested that GA should honor Jefferson, whom Arnason venerated. Arnason, a white man, would also present a lecture about Jefferson entitled, “The Most Famous Unitarian in the World,” and the GA Planning Committee decided that the Saturday night ball would celebrate Jefferson. They suggested that UUs attend the ball dressed in period costumes from the early nineteenth century.
More than three thousand UUs headed to GA with no idea of what was about to happen.
On Thursday morning, in the first plenary session, Hope Johnson, a black woman who at the time was a lay leader at Community Church of New York, stepped to a microphone and read a statement from the African-American Unitarian Universalist Ministers (which later evolved into DRUUMM, Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries) and allies from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds.
The statement Johnson read argued that honoring Jefferson, an “unrepentant slave holder” who “advocated the extermination of indigenous peoples in America,” showed “a profound lack of sensitivity and judgment, particularly in view of the UUA’s stated thrust this year toward racial and ethnic diversity.” If UUs were to wear period costume for the ball, Johnson asked, “Must African Americans attend such events in rags and chains?”
At those words, Johnson recalls today, “you could have heard a pin drop.”
Many present feared a repeat of the black empowerment controversy, which divided UUs in the late 1960s and early ’70s about approaches to racial justice and UUA finances and led to a walkout at the 1969 General Assembly in Boston. Delegates in 1968 had pledged $1 million over four years to black empowerment projects, but in 1969 the UUA board, facing a financial crisis, voted to spread the funding over five years instead of four, alienating many black UUs and creating a tension that continues to be felt to this day. Some at the 1993 GA in North Carolina feared the denomination would be ripped apart by another racial controversy.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, the GA moderator asked that Johnson quickly get a group together to come up with a suggestion on how GA should move forward. She gave them one hour. Johnson and twelve others—including Barbro Hansson, a white woman who was district president, and Leon Spencer, a black man and UUA trustee from the district—decided that the ball should not be canceled, Johnson recalled. They suggested that UUs should decide for themselves whether to go, and, if so, whether to wear period costume.
In the end, a few hundred people protested the dance. While the ball was sparsely attended, it did go on, in part because the ball was the scheduled time to announce the results of the UUA elections. Newly elected moderator Denise Davidoff attended both the ball and the demonstration and told UU World at the time that she saw the demonstration as healthy for the denomination. “The UUA is not going to break up because people get angry,” she said. “That’s when we grow. It’s when we’re pleasant and disinterested and alienated that we lose our ability to be real with each other.”
Looking back twenty-five years later, the ball incident, while a “fiasco,” was “a seminal moment in Unitarian Universalism,” says the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, who, like Hansson, was prompted by the experience to become a UU minister. One reason this event stands out as paradigm-breaking is because of the willingness of those involved—both organizers of the ball and those who argued it was racist—to remain in relationship.
Does the “TJ Ball” (as Johnson and many others call it, to avoid commemorating Jefferson) offer lessons for UUs today who are working to identify and rid both Unitarian Universalism and American society of white supremacy culture?
Johnson and others believe it does. Last June, at the 2018 GA in Kansas City, Missouri, four of the key players in the 1993 controversy—Johnson, Arnason, Hansson, and Spencer—presented a workshop entitled, “25 Years Later: The TJ (Thomas Jefferson) Ball,” at which UUs were invited to examine events and processes in their own congregations and communities that take place without consideration of their effect on people of color.
“The TJ Ball controversy signifies to me the beginning of seeing the contradictions of white liberal antiracism at the stage we were at then, and not being able to articulate it, at that point, in terms of being embedded in a white supremacy culture,” says Arnason. For him, the incident prompted self-examination that led him to realize that he was blind to Jefferson’s flaws. “I was in love with the romanticized dream of privileged white people that Jefferson surely treated his slaves well, and blind to the well-documented story of his second family where his own children were treated as property,” Arnason said at the workshop.
The TJ Ball prompted “such a shift in looking at things,” Arnason says, so that over the twenty-five years since, white people “are talking about white supremacy and starting to see it through that lens, and see the whole country through that lens”—a lens, he emphasizes, that is not new for people of color. Among other things, the ball spurred the beginning of a long process to change the name of the district to remove Jefferson’s name. It was a painful process, Spencer says; the first two votes, in 1997 and 2010, failed, but in 2011—eighteen years after the ball—the district was renamed the Southeast District. The district has now merged into the UUA’s Southern Region.
And while other positives emerged directly from the TJ Ball incident, including that Johnson and Hansson became close friends and that both were prompted to become UU ministers, Spencer says, “I really wouldn’t want to be quoted that we are in a better place [today]. I think the work is here for us to do at this point.”
There are so many important details to include in a comprehensive retelling of the story of the TJ Ball that the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, a black UU minister and historian, emerged from the 2018 conversation with the outline of a book proposal.
Unlike with the 1969 controversy in Boston, “where things pretty much came to a standstill, or really relationships were very difficult to move forward together,” Morrison-Reed says, during the TJ Ball incident “there was enough care given to relationships and listening to one another that they were able to continue to move the agenda forward.”
From Hansson’s perspective, “it felt like [UUs] stayed in community. We didn’t split. Although we did have people who walked away, I think it was more individuals who did that rather than a big group who did it together.”
Two days after Johnson read the statement before the 1993 General Assembly, at a long-planned antiracism training in the GA program, she was stunned to find who her random partner would be among the 3,100 UUs at GA. “Of all the people on God’s earth, who was I paired with but Wayne Arnason, who was furious with me, no doubt,” Johnson recalls. “We just looked at each other for what felt like eternity and then said, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’” Johnson learned that “Wayne didn’t understand, he had no clue” why people of color were upset about the veneration of Jefferson. Today, the two are good friends.
As UUs continue to grapple with confronting Unitarian Universalism’s own white supremacy culture, Morrison-Reed says an emphasis on relationship will sustain the denomination. “That kind of commitment to stay in conversation, no matter how hard it is, that’s what we have to do.”
Johnson says it was critically important that those who objected to the celebration of Jefferson speak their truth at the time. “One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of saying what needs to be said when you see it,” she says. “Be accountable, and that often means taking a deep breath and saying what needs to be said, pointing out there is a huge elephant sitting in the room. Name it and move forward.”
As UUs work to dismantle white supremacy culture, Johnson cautions that they must do it “for the right reason and not just because it’s the party line. It has to be wholehearted and take place every moment of your life.” That means treating each other with respect, even when the conversation is difficult, including being careful about the comments you post on social media about each other, she says. “You’re going to make some mistakes, and I mean we’ll all make mistakes, but apologize and move on,” Johnson says. “My trust, my faith is in Unitarian Universalism: we bungle a lot, but we believe it is worth looking at and trying to change.”
Center people of color and ask what they need to support them rather than presuming what is essential, says Johnson. The Rev. Keith Kron, transitions director in Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA, who was on the GA Planning Committee in 1993, agrees. The TJ Ball “really points to the need to make sure there are people of color in leadership,” and for UUs “really being intentionally thoughtful about what it is we are doing.”
When the 2017 hiring controversy exploded at the UUA—UUA President Peter Morales and others resigned as critics expressed frustration that the UUA’s top positions were largely held by white people—Hansson initially despaired. “I was ready to leave Unitarian Universalism, I was so disheartened by that,” she says. Then the UUA Board of Trustees announced that it would appoint three black UUs to serve as interim co-presidents until a new president was elected at GA 2017. One of the co-presidents was one of the conveners of the group that held the UUA together in 1993, Leon Spencer. “And I went, ‘Wow! We have come somewhere, we have learned something.’” However, Hansson says progress is still moving too slowly.
While Spencer is encouraged that many UUs today are examining structural racism and looking at structural change, “racism and oppression mutate,” he warns. “Are we better prepared to deal with it? I think for myself it would have been better at that time if there were a BLUU [Black Lives of UU]. It sure would have been a nice sanctuary to sit in, to breathe, and to come out organizing.”
Johnson says she’s seen “so much growth since 1993,” and advises, “Be patient. This stuff didn’t happen overnight and won’t end overnight. You have to know this is long-haul work.”
“I think it will take time,” says Johnson. “But I do believe that if we can’t do it, who will?”
History can be burden or a blessing, depending on how we carry it and pass it along.
The baggage of history that people of color carry is the belief that we have always been the victims and will forever be the victims of dominant cultures.
We won’t carry that baggage anymore.
The baggage of history that white people carry is the belief that our whiteness will condemn us to forever being oppressors, and not allies.
The baggage of history that I carry is the belief that all these years of the same conversations with white people haven’t made any difference.
The baggage of history that I carry is the belief that the changes that have happened in my lifetime will make a different future inevitable.
We will not accept that there is no truth concerning our identities apart from race.
We will not accept that hearts closed by social conditioning must remain forever closed.
We will not accept that the Unitarian Universalism we love must forever be defined by a history intertwined with white supremacy and the slave trade.
We will not accept the costumes and the chains that we were told we had to wear.
From a closing choral reading presented by the Rev. Wayne Arnason, the Rev. Barbro Hansson, the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, and Leon Spencer, the leaders of a 2018 General Assembly workshop looking at the controversial 1993 “TJ Ball” and its legacy.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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