Part 1: Cincinnati
When asked at what point he became aware of civil rights issues, Meissner replies, “In Cincinnati, I had a lot of freedom as a kid, and my family didn’t worry about things. I was able to ride the streetcar when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was able to take a streetcar downtown. As I went on that streetcar, we went through what was called ‘The West End,’ and that included almost all the black community or folks from southern Appalachia. Cincinnati was the first urban point on the Great Migration from south to north. So we got both South Appalachian and Blacks coming.”
He saw as a kid the houses where people in the West End lived. “Some of them still had outhouses. This was in a city of 500,000. Some of them kept raccoons because they would eat them. That’s where the derogatory ‘coon’ comes from.” Even as a kid, he was troubled by what he saw.
At about that same time, for his Confirmation, Meissner was given a small book of devotional literature that helped to shape and inform his worldview. It “spent a lot of time talking about Christian heroes, like Dorothea Dix, the Labor movement, Gandhi. Folks like that were lifted up and I was reading about them in my meditations.”
One day, Meissner invited his friend Benny to play with him. “Benny was black and lived on a street below me in that same community. We had a great time—no race consciousness or anything like that. After that, my father simply said to me, ‘We don’t invite or meet with those kind of people.’”
In high school, Meissner became an advisor to a youth group in Newport, Kentucky. “Kentucky adjoins Ohio. The Ohio River runs between the two states. I had always thought the river belonged to Ohio, but it doesn’t. The river belongs to Kentucky. I was riding this bus. I’d grown up in Cincinnati, gone to school with blacks. Supposedly we were interracial. Ten foot out from the shore, the bus stops, and the bus driver says, ‘All the colored people move to the back of the bus.’ And they all got up and moved to the back of the bus. I never forgot that.”
Later, in 1952-1955, Edens seminary was pushing for integration. “We studied the Brown vs. the Board of Education, and of course we had interracial activity in St. Louis. We had two community centers. We were going there as part of our seminary training to serve in those community centers. Meissner explains, “We had like a Jane Addams Hull House in St. Louis, which was a community service. As part of my field work, I was the adult leader of the first integrated club in that area. I had high school blacks and whites forced to meet together who didn’t want to meet together.” On one occasion, the teens brought strangers to the meeting: The white kids brought along a “huge guy, about 6 foot tall,” and the black kids had a “roly-poly guy who was built like a bear.” Meissner chuckles at the memory. “I was, like, ‘Uh-oh’! Tonight’s the night!” Thankfully, confrontation was avoided and the kids were able to get beyond it.
But the next thing that happened throughout the year was the club formed a baseball team—with shirts that said “Fellowship Center.” For the kids, those shirts were a very big deal.
It was a mixed club playing a suburban club, all whites. Meissner recalls, “It was first base or third base, I guess, and we were in the field. The white guy coming off the plate came in high, with his spikes up. Immediately my bench cleared. The players were going out, everybody grabbed a bat. Both benches cleared. When the opposing team saw the blacks coming, they saw the whites coming, too. So the leaders of both teams quickly formed a fence and sent the white team and the mixed team to the showers. You see, it became different when it was your team. They were spiking our black team members! That was one little step that was made.”
Meissner graduated from seminary and was assigned to serve three churches collectively in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, but after five years, it was about time to move. “I had a petition initially from the Huber Memorial Church in Baltimore, and I turned it down because at that point, I just didn’t feel that was right for me, but the conference minister kept after me. He said, ‘Bob, I haven’t seen a situation where a pastor and a church could make such a good marriage as this. You really ought to consider this.’” Meissner put it off until finally he did accept the call, but before he accepted, the denomination had done a study of Baltimore in terms of race relations, what later came to be called civil rights. “And the area where Huber was, it was determined that it would be, initially, a cross-over community, and might eventually go black. This was a good social science study that was done, and it was a good study. I was, at this point, young, idealistic, and angry, and I was sick and tired of the church of Jesus Christ running, moving out to the suburbs. White Flight--that church members would leave the Church.”
Meissner explains, “The church needs to be in the community to serve the people. The whole theory about church at that time was Neighborhood. We didn’t express the options that we have today in terms of where we go. It was your neighborhood; you supported your neighborhood. I went, then, to Huber church knowing—I thought—that the church would be integrated. That was my goal, that the people there and the people who were members would merge, and we would have a nice church. In those days, down the pike, you worked on the theory later that the closer the church came to 51%, it would become a black church, and White Flight would accelerate. That’s literally what happened.”
Part 2: Baltimore's Neighborhoods
It wasn’t all due to White Flight, though. Meissner explains that “the movement came slowly as people died. You have to understand that Baltimore is unique. You had row housing, which meant that every house on the block is attached to the house next to it. You had no yards. Your light on the second floor was dependent on the back window and a skylight. You could hear your neighbors when they were fighting. You could hear your neighbors when things were going well and the music was set at phenomenal volume. It was a difficult situation, but we were the second most stable neighborhood in the city of Baltimore. People came and they lived in those houses until they were married 50 years, or until one or both died. Their children tended to move around them, but the next generation always moves a little further out. Convenience and work—it wasn’t all White Flight at that point. So that began to happen, and our neighborhood was picked by realtors to break that open for the blacks.
“Some of the more unscrupulous realtors weren’t concerned about integration. They could make more money if it became black because the blacks rented; they didn’t own the property.” Those who wanted to buy the house paid two mortgages: house and ground. “You paid off the mortgage on the house, but the ground it was on was owned by someone else. And ground rents took precedence over house ownership. So if you didn’t pay your ground rent, the owner of those ground rents could confiscate your furniture to make up for the payment that wasn’t made. There were some disadvantages, and that was one of them.
“But initially, Baltimore was one of the highest home ownership cities in the country because you could do it in stages. It’s cheaper to buy a house than a house on the ground. The ground rents were a good investment. They were low percentage but good investments. “
The realtors began to send out cards to people indiscriminately: “’Sell your home now before the blacks come.’ Only they didn’t use ‘black.’ They used the words ‘n----rs are coming.’” It was at that point that Huber church and other churches as well began to “do civil rights in pieces.” Meissner goes on to say, “Our civil rights involvement was at multilevels. It eventually became organized, where we had power at each level. But one of the things, when the churches organized, we formed a mission corporation called Homestead Montebello Churches, Inc. We had with us a volunteer Jesuit seminarian who had a real estate license.
Meissner says, “He was a neat, neat guy. He and I fit in well. We were buddies together. He knew how to get at the realtors, and one of his ways was they send you a card. You just write on the postcard ‘Refused’ and they had to pay the postage to get it back.”
Eventually, each of the churches in the area was losing members. They needed a fairly stable base for functioning. “In our neighborhood, and this was after I’d been there three or four years, maybe five, we brought the churches together. Originally we were doing things like unified Bible study, Vacation Bible schools, and things like that. But we began to realize that we had to really penetrate the neighborhood. We had to bring the Church to the neighborhood, that if the Christian faith was to mean anything, it’s got to mean something where you live. So we put together Homestead Montebello Churches, Inc., which included—listen to this conglomeration—UCC, Presbyterians, the Methodists were in it, and then also the Southern Baptists, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Roman Catholics—we had a real ecumenical mix.
“Then we were able to begin—we really began to work on services. When the neighborhood went black, the city services went downhill. Your garbage wasn’t collected as nicely or it wasn’t collected on time. Or they didn’t observe the speed limits on the four-lane streets that ran in front of the churches. So initially we began working for services and then moved to legal.
“For instance, in our parish, we had planned parenthood for those who were interested in counseling. We were able; I used whatever resources we could get.” This kind of activity didn’t happen early and all at once. It evolved over time.
Part 3: The Emerging Church
Meissner continues: “What I’m telling you happened midway to the end, and not necessarily the beginning. One of the first things we did before we were ever organized into the community was there were a number of young mothers there with small children, and we set up a Well Baby clinic. It was either through Planned Parenthood or the Health Department. Huber church got a nurse to come in once a week. It was strictly a Huber project. It didn’t last; it eventually died, but the time had come for it to die after a year and a half. While it was functioning, it met a need. See, wherever we could, I tried to sniff out resources that were already available, and we got a lot of stuff from, well, I got a recreation worker from the City Department of Recreation to deal with teenaged boys and get things going in the neighborhood—ball, soccer, whatever. He simply functioned out of the Huber church.”
Another example was when Meissner’s wife Lois was on the board of directors for the YWCA, which was north of Huber—“a very white collar suburb. Lois was in a meeting and she says, ‘Why don’t we have staff down in Homestead Montebello? That’s where women need a good person.’ And they said, ‘Never thought of that.’ Well, they hired the staff and we used them.”
The new staff person was a young black woman from the South; she functioned out of Huber Memorial Church, where she worked with teenaged girls in the neighborhood. Meissner recalls that “The leadership from the South was excellent. They’d been used to organization in their own community.”
Meissner can’t recall the young woman’s name, but he’s never forgotten one incident that occurred when this staff person took the girls to a dance. Apparently, the event started turning angry, and the staff woman knew it was going to be a tough scene. Meissner says, “She gave me a call. At that time I was driving a Volkswagen bus, and I said I’d be right over. We picked the girls up and took them back home. Well, she was so thankful; I can remember her running across the floor at the dance with open arms to give me a hug, and she stopped fifteen, twenty feet from me. I knew exactly what was going through her mind. She as a black woman shouldn’t be hugging a white man. She came out of the South. It hurt, but I understood it fully. We were on excellent terms, but she didn’t want that being misunderstood by anybody.”
“Denominationally, the UCC, Presbyterians, and Episcopals had a city-wide mission—not a building but they were attempting to bring the Christian faith in terms of the whole urban scene. “They hired two or three what they called ‘street ministers.’ These were young black men who weren’t ordained or anything of that nature, but they were men who were interested in doing something for the blacks in the neighborhoods.” These ministers also worked out of Huber church.
One of these ministers, Osbourne Robinson, worked with Meissner . He was the one who discovered that there were a number of artists in the area that just had no place to go and no way of getting into the art world. “So we talked with the group and said let’s form an artist’s association. Eastern Baltimore Artist Association met at Huber Memorial Church. They paid no dues, had no responsibility to the church. It was a space. They had a key and could come and go and do what they want. As a result, through Huber Memorial and the Homestead Montebello churches, we were able to put on an annual art show at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.” Featured arts included literature, dance, and instrumental music. “There were Black Muslims who were members of that, there were Christians, there were secularists. “ Huber church even provided a piano to Johns Hopkins for the jazz performers to use.
One of Meissner’s proudest memories of what Huber gave to the community was the small play lot the Army Corps of Engineers installed with building materials supplied by the church. “We were contacted by the Army wanting to come and they were all the guys who had themselves grown up in the inner city. We said, yeah, sure you can come down.” On a tiny vacant city lot “they put in a carousel with these horses for the little kids, and a half-court basketball hoop for the teenagers, and swings. Well, those swings were mounted. It would’ve taken bull elephants to get them out of the ground. But the neat thing was, everybody on that street came together and they cooked a meal for the guys when they were doing the work. We had the best fried chicken and corn bread! To see that kind of interaction was just delightful.”
Meissner explains that “much of what we did was behind doors and working the system, knowing who to talk to. “When I was president of the PTA, we needed our buildings modified. We had these Quonset huts for our extra school board. The building itself didn’t have proper electricity. I had a professional black photographer who took pictures of all the code violations, and we went down to the School Board and said to them, ‘These are the violations. We expect them to be changed, and if they’re not, the Fire department will have these pictures within a week.’ And they snuck down an electrician at midnight to make the changes.”
When asked if Huber church defined for him what “church” is, Meissner says, “Yeah, we need to move outside. See, I had two congregations in a sense, and I had to come to that realization for myself. I had the congregation to which I was called, which was basically the older white group, most of whom moved away but were still members. But I also had the congregation to which I was called unofficially—the community. I functioned at those dual levels.”
Part 4: Neighborhood Leadership
In many important respects, Meissner was becoming a community activist. He did a lot of networking. His interest in such work was influenced by the literature that was popular at the time: “It was all in terms of black/white issues. I was heavy into the urbanization of the church, and there were several national gatherings of the denomination that I attended. That was one of the points, too, that our job is to bring forth the leadership, the black leadership. It has to be their issue. In sitting in some of the community meetings with the leaders, it became apparent that what we needed to do was enable people and support the system, that it ought not be our program.”
Meissner goes on to describe who some of those neighborhood leaders were: “We were fortunate in that the leadership that evolved, the black leadership, was amazing because we had a small core of people who were Southern blacks who had come out of small, Southern black towns, where there were established black communities. They may not have gone to the white Baptist church, but they had their own church. And they had their own leadership. And we got people, some of those leaders who had had strong middle-class desires and backgrounds. What they wanted was a good family, decent housing, good schools. We were in a position where we could enable that.”
One of the neighborhood’s key leaders was Walter Brooks. Brooks had served as secretary of CORE (the Council On Racial Equality), and was forced out, politically. “They had a mark on him,” Meissner explains. “They had somebody hired to hit him. He was carrying a weapon at that time.” According to Meissner, “Brooks was one of the best bi-lingual people I knew. Not that he spoke Spanish, but he spoke ‘street.’ He could move from the street to the board room with no effort. You could see his language change. How he handled himself changed.”
Another leader that Meissner greatly admired was a woman whose name was Clara Moore, who sent her kids to Huber’s Sunday school for a year before she would set foot in the church herself. “She wanted to see how they treated kids before she ventured forth.” She did, however, get caught up in the changes that were happening. “She was in a meeting one time where we were talking about leadership, and that you had to have people who could do this or that and so forth. She said very quietly, ‘I’ve got fifteen people who follow what I say. Does that make me a leader?” Absolutely.
As pastor of Huber Memorial Church, Meissner was, of course, also a minister. “I’d go knock on the doors and say, ‘I’m Pastor Bob Meissner. I’m pastor of the Huber Memorial down on the corner, and we would sure love to have you come,’ and I’d leave a bulletin.” He officiated the worship service, visited the ailing, performed all the duties expected of those in pastoral ministry. But he learned that his job also involved providing resources to the leaders of the community. “What I got was the use of the building. That’s what I needed. I got some money, too, but not much. Yeah, I just kind of emerged when I realized the neighborhood was moving and leaving.”
Not everyone was happy with Meissner, however. “There was a threat. The annual meeting was coming up and there was a group, one of whom was a former council member, that was organizing to ask for my dismissal. They were going to bring a motion that I be dismissed as pastor.” Their displeasure had to do with “bringing in these people who weren’t attuned to our custom. The neighborhood was going downhill, the building supposedly was being attacked. It wasn’t as clean as they would like it at times.”
Huber’s moderator was at that time a contractor, one of the better contractors in the city, a well-known power person. Very committed as a person who said, ‘Let’s do right!’ He convened the church council in my living room the Thursday night before the annual meeting, and they role-played everything that might be said in a negative way to me. At that time I was young and ready for a fight, so they knew how I’d react—with anger and with volume. They role-played everything so that I would not be defensive.”
Prior to the annual meeting, a meal was served in Fellowship Hall. None of Meissner’s opponents got to sit together. Meissner says, “I don’t know if that was by design or by default, but nobody had the guts to put the motion on the floor.”
Meissner admits that he’d get so frustrated that he’d sometimes be on the verge of giving up his ministry altogether. “I had to finally come to people and say, ‘If you’re leaving, go with grace and my prayers. Find a faith community where you can be at home, but don’t stand in our way.”
Some people did leave, but there were others who stayed, “who welcomed people into the church council, who helped the Sunday school teachers.” The community itself, both within and outside of the church, accepted and even felt protective of Meissner and his family. “On one occasion we had a Homestead Montebello Civic Association that was meeting at Huber, and we had a black nationalist who had come from some place else, but he was there to recruit. He came up and put his finger in my face and said, ‘Brother, you need to get out of here. This should be an all-black community. Get out, you white honkey!’ Without anything being said, a number of my people who were active in the Civic Association just formed a quiet circle around the black nationalist. They simply said, ‘Brother, you’re the stranger here.’” For Meissner, that action on his behalf meant more than all the awards he was ever to receive during the course of his career.
By the end of his 14 year tenure at Huber Memorial Church, Meissner and the Homestead Montebello organization had, with the support of the community at large, a renewed sense of community mission. When asked what our own church and community could learn from what he experienced in Baltimore, Meissner says, “I think the first thing we need to learn is it’s a different time and a different era. What may have worked there may have been unique to Baltimore. But, I think that organization is still the key.”
Part 5: Meissner’s Letter to His Family about The Passover
To the Meissners, Spielmans, Gustafsons, and Lois Katt:
This letter is a response to the worship service on January 20, 2008 at First Congregational UCC in DeKalb. In some ways, it may have been better to write immediately, as often in postponing, we lose some initial insight. Sunday, the service reflected the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was more indirectly than head-on. The hymns were “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
I have not been able to sing “We Shall Overcome” since the assassination of Dr. King. I’m sure Kathy was well aware of my tears and inability to finish during the service.
As a family, we don’t have opportunity to meet often, and when we do, we don’t always tell some of the family stories. One of the positive discoveries of the late 20th century in both preaching and counseling of various sorts has been the discovery of the importance of “family stories.” Part of society’s difficulties is that we are losing our stories. Therefore, this is an attempt to share a few of the stories that I was involved in during Holy Week, when Dr. King was assassinated. I would like to request that you read this together at some time as a family and take a few moments to reflect, and for the Meissners involved to share a few insights and open them to the entire family.
In Baltimore, the reaction to Dr. King’s murder came somewhat slowly, and was not violently directed toward individuals as in some other cities, but what violence there was, was property-oriented. In our neighborhood of Homestead Montebello, the only violence was the burning of a small grocery store, and that man had been mean and overcharged his customers for as long as I had known him.
When Baltimore began to react to King’s death, marital law was declared, and the inner city was ringed by National Guardsmen. A curfew was declared and no one was permitted in or out. I joined several other clergy, donned my clerical collar, and once or twice took food supplies in. Since it was to me unknown how the response might come, I opted to stay in the church for about 48 hours continuously so that the church could be available if any of the neighbors were bombed out or threatened. It was rumored that H. Rap Brown, the leader of S.N.N.C., one of the original non-violent student attempts, had escapedWashington, D.C., and was in our Homestead Montebello neighborhood. As a result, the Army Intelligence assigned and African American and White team to circle the area every hour. So every hour, they would come to the church, get a hot cup of coffee, and brief me on what was going on. Fortunately, nothing was going on, except on one occasion, a shot rang out and I learned later that someone had shot a dog that seemed on the verge of attack.
One of the sights I shall never forget was the 101st Airborne US Army paratroopers in our neighborhood. These are the crack outfits for battle in the US forces and have seen heavy action most recently in Iraq. It is one thing to sit and watch TV, and see Detroit or Los Angeles in violence. It is entirely different to see the paratroopers with automatic weapons at the ready in your neighborhood, by your church, and among your neighbors. They ringed City College School (a boys pre-liberal arts high school) and Eastern (a counterpart for the girls) down by Clifton Park, and eventually ringed the water reserve to prevent anyone from doing anything to the water supply. I remember having just read the Red Flag, Black Flag book of the anarchists takeover of the area around the Arc de Triumph in Paris, and thinking to myself of the massive number of ex-Viet Nam veterans, all trained in war in the area. But the area remained quiet.
Our church neighborhood, Homestead Montebello, was an area that had a few years ago been one of the most stable areas of the city, where folks came as bride and groom, raised their families, and stayed forty or fifty years. But as a result of some unethical realtors, the neighborhood was broken, from one family, two-story row houses to having two families renting per home. And, of course, the rents for the blue collar blacks were sky-high. Huber church was instrumental in organizing against these and other violations and injustices. As more and more of the white families either moved or died, the ratio of black to white was probably 90% to 10%, with the only whites being older families remaining and the blacks with several children per family.
When the reaction to Dr. King’s murder came to our neighborhood, it was from “outsiders” who were mobile and moving rapidly from area to area. Somehow in this environment, unofficial signals arose to indicate to the violent intruders that a friend lived here. Thus the house would be spared. One of the most positive and influencing factors of my life happened at this time. For the young black wife or husband would go next door to the older couple who had no idea what was going on, and say simply “Ms. Smith or Mr. George, would you mind if I just tie this black ribbon around the outside light, or would you mind if turning on your porch light tonight?”
And thus came the Passover.
I have always been intrigued, questioned, doubted that biblical story of the Angel of Death passing over the Hebrews of Egypt, but never, NEVER AGAIN. Love can and does conquer.
Finally, the leadership of the city and the African American community began to talk and listen to each other. Fortunately, the city leaders did more listening than talking, and it was Easter Saturday evening when peace returned and there was the possibility of a new beginning. Easter that day came with power, for “Christ was risen indeed.”
What started this reflection off was our church singing “We Shall Overcome.” As I’ve said, that song is loaded with memories for me. As the organ was playing and I tried singing to no avail, my mind flashed back and visually I saw the circle of predominantly black, but white also, standing in a ring around the sanctuary of Huber Memorial Church, holding hands at the conclusion of our service of memorial for the neighborhood, singing vibrantly and with faith “We Shall Overcome.” Even in writing this, the picture is stirring. Well, just a few stories of being in the right place at the right time.