Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Rev. Mr. Fenwick's rather obvious secret

This is the third and final post regarding the Rev. Louis M. Fenwick (left, as he appeared ca. 1900), early pastor of Chariton's African Methodist Episcopal congregation, who eloquently defended his flock in early 1888 against racist attacks by Samuel S. King, editor of The Chariton Democrat. Fenwick, in his defense, described King as the "dog that barked" for Smith H. Mallory, Democrat owner and Lucas County's major mover and shaker of that time.

Fenwick continued to serve his scattered flock in southern Iowa, including Chariton, until the Iowa Annual Conference of the A.M.E. Church held its 1889 convention during early September in Milwaukee (at that time, the Iowa Annual Conference included Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Dakota and much of northern Illinois outside Chicago).

During that general meeting, Fenwick received a new assignment that would take him to Elgin, Illinois, northwest of Chicago. The Chariton Herald, in its edition of Sept. 19, 1889, wished him farewell as follows:

Rev. L.M. Fenwick returned last week from the A.M.E. Conference at Milwaukee. His appointment for the coming year is at Elgin, Ill., and he left on last Thursday for his new field of labor. Rev. P.O. Taylor has been assigned to work on the Chariton and Albia circuit. Rev. Taylor has a wife and two children and will reside in Chariton. He comes to us well recommended by his brethren and we hope that his residence among us may be useful and pleasant. Rev. Fenwick carries with him the best wishes of all who have known of his faithful work in Chariton.


During the next five years or so, the Rev. Mr. Fenwick served a variety of A.M.E. congregations, all in Illinois. Among the cities served were Elgin (1889), Batavia (1890), Alton (1892), Lincoln (1893) and Mound City (1894). During 1890, while headquartered at Batavia, he was among the top finishers in a field of "Great Popular Preachers" in a competition conducted among subscribers to The Appeal, a widely circulated black-readership newspaper based in St. Paul-Minneapolis.

During 1894, however, Fenwick decided upon a career modification --- he enrolled and graduated from Barnes Medical College, established during 1892 in St. Louis. There are some indications that he had begun to study medicine about 10 years earlier at the Keokuk Medical College in Iowa, then had given that profession up to pursue the ministry. 

After earning his degree in St. Louis during 1898, Fenwick relocated to Chicago to both practice medicine and to serve metropolitan congregations in various capacities through 1901.

During 1902, Fenwick received a call to serve the congregation of St. Mark A.M.E. Church in Milwaukee, the oldest and largest of that city's black churches. He put his medical practice in Chicago on hold and moved there with his wife, Nettie.

And it was here that his rather obvious "secret" was exposed during October of 1903 --- in open court of all places.

The case involved one of Fenwick's parishioners, J.W. Bess, accused of burglarizing his pastor's home. During the trial, Bess's defense attorney, for one reason another, asked Fenwick flat out, "Are you a white man?"

Fenwick first responded, "I am a gentleman," but was directed by the judge to be more specific. According to a Milwaukee newspaper report, "The witness held forth the palms of his hands so that the court and the officers of the court could see them, and replied: 'I am a white man.' "

Although it seems curious now, more than a century down the road, this was a huge news story in Milwaukee that was picked up and republished nationwide. Here's how The Minneapolis-St. Paul Appeal presented the story to its predominantly black readership in its edition of Oct. 17:

Pastor of Afro-American Church Turned Out to be a Caucasian

Milwaukee, Oct. 12 --- Pastor Fenwick of the African M.E. church has been found to be a white man, and accordingly some of the brethren are drawing the color line tonight and trying to replace him by an Afro-American. The story came out during the trial of J.W. Bess, a member of the church, who was charged by Pastor Fenwick with robbing his residence. The preacher, being asked about his color, replied, "I am a gentleman," but later admitted his Caucasian descent. Mr. Fenwick says he never claimed to be anything but a white man, in spite of the fact that he passed as an Afro-American. He joined the church at Keokuk, Iowa, in 1884, being drawn to the work through a desire to help the Afro-American people. At that time he claims to have had a lucrative practice as a physician and displayed his diplomas. He does not intend to give up his charge, and says the "little group of malcontents" will have a lively time in driving him out.


All of the attention devoted to the Rev. Mr. Fenwick's story during 1903 seems a little odd now --- until you think about more recent cases that involved crossing the American color line. The Fenwick story returned briefly to public attention in Milwaukee and elsewhere during 2015, for example, after extensive reporting on Rachel Dolezal, civil rights activist, black studies instructor and chair of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP --- until it was revealed that she had lied about her African American heritage and was, in fact, "white."

There's little doubt that Fenwick's parishioners and others were entirely aware of his skin color, but they also were aware in those race-conscious times that nothing more than an African-American great-grandfather was sufficient cause to declare someone black. There was even a word for it --- octoroon. On the other hand, a white great-grandfather was insufficient to earn someone whose racial makeup was otherwise black the designation "white."

In the aftermath of the 1903 revelations, some former parishioners said they had just assumed the Rev. Mr. Fenwick was an octoroon. Others noted his "Ethiopian" features.

Many years earlier in Lucas County, S.S. King apparently had noted Fenwick's complexion. When scratching around for insulting words to throw at the preacher, King came up with "cross between an Albino and Ourang Otang." With the latter, King was aiming for orangutan --- a species that has reddish-brown hair.

I've been able to find only one physical description of the Rev. Mr. Fenwick, published in The Appeal during 1894 as part of a report on the preacher's wedding that year to Nettie Jones in East St. Louis: "The bride is of a light complexion and the groom, with entirely white skin, sandy hair and moustache bears little resemblance to an Afro-American."


The preacher's revelation that he had no physical African-American credentials did divide the St. Mark congregation in Milwaukee, so during 1904, Fenwick resigned and returned to Chicago, picked up the threads of his medical practice and lived and practiced there for the remainder of his life.

He did remain active in the A.M.E. Church, however, serving it in a variety of capacities. He was last recorded in the 1930 census of Chicago, living in a predominantly black neighborhood, boarding in the home of another A.M.E. preacher.


Louis was, as it turns out, a southern Iowa boy. When he died at the age of 72 in Chicago on April 6, 1931, his death certificate stated that he had been born on Aug. 29, 1858, in Gentry County, northwest Missouri.

But by 1870, his parents --- James E. and Mary (Sutherland) Fenwick --- had divorced and Mary was living in Oskaloosa with her eight children, all save Louis born in Iowa. They were John A., James E., Thomas, Nancy A., Louis M., Cyrus R., Samantha and Jonathan H. During 1880, Louis still was living at home in Oskaloosa at the age of 21, occupation given as "works in brick yard."

Soon thereafter, he must have relocated to Keokuk. According to 1903 reports, he joined an A.M.E. congregation in Keokuk during 1881, was licensed to preach in 1884, was ordained an A.M.E. deacon during the 1886 general convention in Cedar Rapids; and an elder, during the 1888 general convention in Oskaloosa --- while he was serving his Chariton congregation.

While Louis was following his calling in the A.M.E. Church, his brother, Thomas, was following a similar career path in the Free Methodist denomination.

The last newspaper account that I could find linking the Rev. Mr. Fenwick to Iowa appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette of Aug. 8, 1919, under the headline, "Methodists Hold Camp Meeting Near Marion."

The Free Methodist camp meeting opens this evening in Greer's Grove, south of the city. The meeting is in charge of the Marion pastor, the Rev. T.M. Fenwick, assisted by his brother, the Rev. L.M. Fenwick, of Chicago, and his son, the Rev. David L. Fenwick, of Morris, Ill., who will be here during the meetings.

Louis was married perhaps four times --- indications are that he was something of a serial monogamist. But so far as I can tell, there were no children. And the fact he left no one behind to tell his story may explain some of its apparent mysteries.


After the Rev. Mr. Fenwick's story resurfaced most recently, during 2015, a good deal of analysis ensued. What sort of metal glitch would make someone want to pass for black? Well, that's a question I'm neither qualified nor particularly interested in trying to answer.

The Rev. Mr. Fenwick may not have lied in face-to-face situations about his racial makeup during the course of a rather long life simply because few would think to ask. Why, after all, would anyone want to pass for black less than 50 years after slavery had ended and Jim Crow was taking hold in the South? On the other hand, he certainly had developed a backstory, presenting himself as black. 

Here is his biography from a 1906 volume entitled "Sons of Allen," compiled by the Rev. Horace Talbert to profile 122 spiritual "sons" of Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1816.

Few persons, irrespective of race, possess the broad, thorough preparation for their life-work as does Dr. Louis Madison Fenwick, the subject of this sketch.

He was born in Gentry County, Missouri, August 29, 1858, of deeply religious parentage, and obtained his early education in the High School and College at Oskaloosa, Iowa, afterward entering Penn College in the same city. In 1884 he joined the Conference at Keokuk, Iowa, and was assigned to the Princeton and Knoxville Circuit, Illinois, where he did excellent work in freeing both charges from debt. The same record was made at Minneapolis. In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Bedford and Creston (actually, Chariton), Iowa, churches were built; eight charges in Illinois were either made to rejoice over new houses of worship, or the remodeling of old ones, by his wise management of financial conditions; in Evanston, Illinois, his last charge, he raised more money than any of the pastors of the Church before him had ever succeeded in doing.

But a natural love for medical science, and a desire to minister to the physical comfort of his fellow creatures by alleviating their suffering, and healing their diseases, led him, in 1894, to enter the Barnes Medical College at St. Louis, Missouri, from which he was graduated four years later, standing fifth in a class of one hundred and seventy-six, and being the first Negro to receive a diploma from that Institution. For two years he was associated as Assistant Clinician with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in St. Louis, and also served most efficiently in the City Hospital.

Not satisfied with his attainments in his new profession, he obtained, also, by hard study, a diploma from the National College of Electro-Therapeutics and Electro-Physics in Indianapolis, and is now an eminent and competent physician in the city of Chicago.

Christians are great ones for attributing their activities to a "calling." Louis described his during 1903 as "a desire to help the Afro-American people." And there's really no reason to doubt him. It all may have been as simple as that.

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