Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Jesse Routte, Chariton --- and Jim Crow

I come across stories now and then that are too good not to repeat, even though the connection to Lucas County is tangential. 

Which doesn't mean that the Rev. Jesse W. Routte doesn't represent an important Chariton milestone. Thanks to the congregation of First Lutheran Church, he was in 1930 among the first --- if not the first --- black person invited to preach from a "white" pulpit in the city.

Lucas County was by this time fairly well over its infatuation with the Ku Klux Klan. Membership had diminished to the point that Klan headquarters --- a disused church at the intersection of North Grand and Auburn purchased in 1924 --- was sold during that year to a newly organized Assembly of God congregation.

And Lutherans, like their Catholic brothers and sisters, never had been involved in the Klan.

But still, the invitation made --- most likely intentionally --- a statement about the congregation and its values.


A seminarian when he preached and sang in Chariton, the Rev. Mr. Routte went on to a distinguished career as a Lutheran clergyman, first in Harlem and then in Queens, and as a lifelong civil rights activist.

Seventeen years after his Chariton visit --- during 1947 --- he attracted nationwide attention by donning a turban and robes rented from a costumer as a political statement and turning Jim Crow in the old South on its ear. It was called by some the "turban trick."

By 1947, the Rev. Mr. Routte was pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in South Jamaica, Queens. His younger brother, the Rev. Louis A. Routte --- also an Augustana graduate ---  lived in Mobile, Alabama, where had been pastor since 1941 of Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church.

I'll let partial text of a 2014 podcast from the National Public Radio series "Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed," tell the story:


Routté's experiment began after he traveled to Mobile, Ala., in 1943 for a family engagement. He wasn't happy with how he was treated.

"I was Jim Crowed here, Jim Crowed there, Jim Crowed all over the place," he later told reporters. "And I didn't like being Jim Crowed."

So he went back in 1947, with a plan.

Before he boarded the train to Alabama, he put on a spangled turban and velvet robes. When the train reached North Carolina during lunchtime, Routté walked over to the diner car where the only vacant seat (sic) was occupied by two white couples.

One of the men said, "Well, what have we got here?" to which Routté replied in his best Swedish accent (he had been the only black student at a Swedish Lutheran college in Illinois), "We have here an apostle of goodwill and love" — leaving them gaping.

And that confusion seemed to work for Routté on the rest of his trip. He dropped in on police officials, the chamber of commerce, merchants — and was treated like royalty.

At a fancy restaurant he asked the staff what would happen if a "Negro gentleman comes in here and sits down to eat." The reply: "No negro would dare to come in here to eat."

"I just stroked my chin and ordered my dessert," he said.

After he returned to New York, Routté said he felt like "a paratrooper behind enemy lines."

His son Luther Routté is now 74 (in 2014). Both of his parents — prominent in activist communities in Harlem and Long Island — were always doing "social experiments," trying to find solutions to the prejudice they saw in the world. And this experiment exploded the myth that blacks were innately inferior and warranted inferior treatment, he says.

"He didn't change his color. He just changed his costume, and they treated him like a human," says Luther Routté, who has been a Lutheran pastor for 25 years. It "shows you the kind of myopia that accompanies the whole premise of apartheid or segregation."

Through the "turban trick," Routté basically transformed himself from a threat to a guest — black to invisible.


"There were repercussions from the "turban trick." The Klan burned a cross in front of our house," Luther Routte recalled when talking about his father and the incident during 1989. And the family moved in with relatives for a time for their safety.

But "in our household, it was always that God was with us. My parents were courageous people. There was real faith. I think the rightness of it helped us get through it.

"I had two very bright and intelligent parents who were faced with the kind of prejudice, as my father would say, so thick you could cut it with a knife. My parents set the pace of how a Christian should really live."


All of this, of course, was long after the young seminarian appeared in Chariton --- in itself a political statement, although a practical one. Routte sang and spoke in many other Midwestern churches  affiliated with the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod, too, during his years as a seminarian at Augustana College in Rock Island. It was how he paid for his education.

The invitation to the community issued by Chariton's Lutherans, published on Page 1 of The Leader of March 18, 1930, contains more of Routte's story --- as well as some phrasing that makes us squirm a little 87 years later.

Mr. Jesse W. Routte, a young negro student of Augustana Theological Seminary, Rock Island, Ill., will appear at the First Lutheran church, Eighth street and Roland ave., next Sunday evening, March 23, at 8 p.m., when he will give one of his very popular concerts. This will include musical selections from many varied sources, such as Negro Spirituals which are so highly valued today, as well as the more well-known compositions. Of great interest to any American audience are the short talks he gives in which he presents the problems, hopes and aspirations of the American Negro of today.

Under special invitation of the pastor of the First church, Mr. Routte will deliver the sermon at the regular morning worship the same Sunday at 10:45 a.m. There is thus offered the community the unique experience of hearing a member of the colored race bring us a gospel message.

The life story of Jesse Routte, Augustana's popular Negro student, reveals a stormy past which includes poverty, starvation, hard work, many discouragements and disappointments. The early death of the father, an A.M.E. preacher, of Kewanee, Ill., brought hardship on the little family, but the noble mother struggled loyally on with added responsibilities. She gave concert tours with her three boys for a time until ill health caused her to give up that work. Jesse finally came to rock Island, Ill., where he was employed in a cleaning and dyeing establishment. Determined to try to secure an education, he was at work before 5 a.m. and after school hours in the evening. He tells himself that often he would have to skip some class just before noon and go to some restaurant so as to work for a meal.

Through the kindly interest of his employer, Mr. Beverlin, of Rock Island, Jesse was enabled to begin his college course at Augustana. He quickly found friends among the many students who were willing to be of assistance to the plucky little fellow who had won his way into their hearts. By dint of close attention to his work he was granted the degree, Bachelor of Arts, last June, the first B.A. student to receive that honor from Augustana among the colored race.

Mr. Routte was matriculated as a special student with the incoming class at Augustana Seminary last September, and is now in his first year. He plans to prepare himself for the Lutheran ministry within the Augustana Synod and after his ordination will labor especially among the people of his race in Chicago, Ill., He has already rendered valuable service as student in charge of church work under the Augustana Inner Mission of that city.

Mr. Routte is "singing his way" through the seminary with the vision of greater service to his God and to his people. A special offering will be lifted for him Sunday evening during his concert here. We feel sure the people of this community will readily respond generously.

All in the community are most cordially invited to hear this genial, likable young Negro. We bid a hearty welcome also to the colored folks of Chariton and vicinity to hear this member of their own race.


A brief account published in The Leader during the week after Routte's apperance suggests that a substantial crowd turned out and that both his music and his messages were well received.

The seminarian went on to earn both M.A. and D.D. degrees from Augustana, but was called to serve in New York City, rather than Chicago.

He was serving as assistant pastor at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in Harlem when he met and married his wife, Maude, who was studying for her  master's degree at Columbia University. She was a native of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, once a Danish colony, and the Lutheran expression of faith could be traced back several generations in her family.

Working together and with others, they established a mission congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in South Jamaica, Queens, where he served until retirement during 1965.

"Jackie Robinson lived in our neighborhood," their son, Luther Routte, recalled during 1989. "Two doors down from us was John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I delivered newspapers to Jackie Robinson, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald."

His father performed the wedding of entertainer Pearl Bailey and jazz drummer Louis Bellson.

The Rev. Mr. Routte died at his home in Queens on May 16, 1972. 


The Rev. Luther H. Routte, now retired from the ELCA ministry after a distinguished career as both pastor and activist, lives and remains a community activist in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was called in 1988 to be the first black pastor of the nearly all-white Atonement Lutheran Church, Wyomissing, which he served for 20 years. Atonement is among the largest Lutheran congregations in Berks County.

No comments: