Memoir of a Friendship1
Randall K. Burkett
I remember well my first encounter with Richard Newman. As a charter member of the Steering Committee of the African American Religious History Group of the American Academy of Religion (as well as a founding member of the closely-related Northeast Seminar on Black Religion) , I had helped organize our first public meeting, a session on new research in African American religious history to be held at the annual meeting of the AAR in October 1975. Within days of publication of the AAR program, I received a luncheon invitation from a publisher at G. K. Hall & Co., inviting me to Boston to discuss the paper I was preparing on "George Alexander McGuire and the African Orthodox Church." Dollar signs and the sense of imminent success flashed through my mind. Publishers would undoubtedly soon be bidding for rights to my biography of McGuire, this Garveyite founder of a "racial" branch of the Protestant Episcopal Church. I had long suspected that the scholarly world was hungry for information on this little-known divine.
The lunch was a heady experience, and I clearly remember the restaurant, where we dined on a fine dish of grilled shrimp, several glasses of wine, and tiramisu. Even more vivid are memories of my host and of our three-hour conversation. This fellow Newman not only knew more than I about a principal subject of my dissertation, but he had recently returned from South Africa, where he tracked down the archives-under the bed of the late Archbishop Daniel Alexander-of the African Orthodox Church of South Africa. Further, he was already on the trail of an AOC apostate in Florida, Laura Adorkor Kofey, who had founded a splinter group of the denomination in south Miami.
Needless to say, no other publisher ever called about my putative book on George McGuire, and indeed, Newman himself had no prospect of publishing it with G. K. Hall. The book remains unwritten, but the friendship endures. As one of, perhaps, five scholars in the Northern Hemisphere who had even heard of McGuire or the African Orthodox Church, we could hardly afford to abandon one another. Who knew what those other three oddballs might be like, and how would we ever find them?
All things considered, Dick has been the more tolerant in our relationship over these past nearly thirty years. He had been an ordained Presbyterian minister, steeped in the Calvinist tradition, deeply affected by his mentors at Union Theological Seminary when it was unquestionably the great theological seminary in the nation. He had met and/or studied with many of those towering figures: theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Old Testament professor James Muilenburg, and the retired Christian socialist, Harry F. Ward. I, on the other hand, had attended the "light weight" divinity school at Harvard, and I came out of the even lighter weight theological tradition of Methodism. We have come to our skepticism by different routes, but I always knew that Dick had earned his, whereas mine was but a natural evolution, down the slippery slope from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Ludwig Feuerbach to Max Weber and beyond. After all, I had gone to divinity school on a whim to study the intersection of Marxism and Christianity. Newman, the Calvinist, had gone to theological seminary to study Karl Barth.
Over the years since we met we've enjoyed many high points. For years, we dined together in various parts of the country on his generous International Telephone and Telegraph corporate expense account. On each occasion, we toasted the fact that by our extravagance we were depriving the company of funds it might otherwise be expending to subvert governments in Latin America. We traveled to San Francisco, where we met the hermetic James deT. Abajian, whose mother had sat mute for years in the corner of their living room. The room itself was filled with a half dozen ranges of card catalogs. This man spent his days by his mother, reading microfilmed newspapers, census records, and other obscure primary documents. He did this in order to index on 3 x 5 inch filing cards every African American name he encountered. The five folio volumes of this index, which Dick published through G. K. Hall, provides access to biographical information available nowhere else. We decided this was such an estimable way for Mr. Abajian to spend his days that we never inquired what he did with his nights.
I recently ran across a review of Abajian's work that Dick wrote for the newsletter devoted to African American religious history, on which we collaborated for nearly 20 years. The piece is vintage Newman and it offers a fitting tribute to the late Mr. Abajian, building on a single one of those bibliographical citations:
Gibson, Mrs. America, 1838 -
Los Angeles widow, mother of ten (two living); rents res. at 763 San
Julian; unable to read or write; b. Mo.; parents b. Ky., Texas; husband, Ar.
Dick offered this gloss on the text: "Could any other few lines be as pregnant and provocative as this last entry: a reference to an illiterate black woman born in slavery in Missouri, whose parents came from Kentucky and Texas, who married a man from Arkansas, who buried eight of her ten children, and whose name was America! The citation is such an extraordinary and insightful and moving story by itself it reads like the outline of a novel." [Newsletter of the Afro-American Religious History Group of the American Academy of Religion 11, 2 (Spring 1987), 14.]
Another West Coast jaunt was equally interesting. Robert Hill, editor of the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers project, invited us to UCLA to assess and appraise the papers of the African Orthodox Church of South Africa. The indefatigable Professor Hill had followed in Newman's footsteps to Cape Town, where he convened the Council of Bishops to ask of them what they intended to do with the great AOC archive, housed now in a back room of the cathedral church. "What," inquired the presiding bishop, "do you think we should do?" To which Hill replied, "You should give it to me to take to America, where I shall preserve it by sale, on your behalf, to a great American research university." The bishop, after a moment of silence, declared, "We always thought Professor Newman would come to take it. But we see now that he was but as John the Baptist, come before you to preserve our history."
This was not the only occasion on which Richard Newman has been described in biblical terms. One of our most extravagant escapades was a "love feast" held in our honor at the Divine Lorraine Hotel, one of Philadelphia's finest culinary and residential establishments owned by the lately dematerialized Father Divine. Dick had become quite friendly with Mother Divine and had, in fact, been entertained by her at Woodmont, her estate on the Hudson River. Through the newsletter we edited, I had put Newman in touch with a faithful student of Father Divine, a professor of sociology at Temple University who was only prohibited from joining the Peace Mission Movement by this happily-married man's inability to adhere to the strict rule concerning "no undue mixing of the sexes."
Dick had by this point started a private publishing venture, Lambeth Press, and one of the first books he published was Kenneth E. Burnham's sympathetic account, God Comes to America: Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement (Boston, 1979). To celebrate its publication, Mother Divine invited the three of us to a grand dinner in honor of the occasion. This memorable event was nearly wrecked at the outset by my innocent but offensive query, during our pre-dinner tour, as to whether our guides were aware that Father had, in 1932, purchased the presses of Marcus Garvey's Negro World to start one of his own publications, The World Echo. There was an immediate and definite chill in the room: not only had I mentioned a forbidden name, Marcus Garvey, but I had said aloud the "N" word that Father had long since made taboo. Thanks to Dick's deft apology, we were permitted to proceed to the waiting crowd of 100 banqueters and a nearly forty-course meal.
The culmination of the evening was not being serenaded by the Rosebuds, in their sprightly red, white, and blue uniforms-memorable though that was. (How could one forget the rousing chorus, to the tune "Roll Out the Barrel," of one of their favorites: "God in a Body, God in a Body, Divine.") Rather, it was the testimony offered by a rather shy fifty-year-old professor of chemistry who had been raised since early childhood within the Peace Mission. I became increasingly nervous as he began to speak about the great moment, some 2,000 years earlier, when three wise men from the East had been drawn to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus. "Afterward," he said, "they went their way and were not heard from again. What was important was that they had come and had seen God incarnate." "It would not be facetious tonight," he continued, "to say that three wise men have come from the East ." After which, each of us was expected to address the audience.
My own incoherent mutterings have been happily repressed, but of course Dick rose magnificently to the occasion. He recalled a previous visit made to that very hotel nearly twenty years earlier by the distinguished founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, Sir George McLeod. Newman quoted verbatim that gentleman's remarks and the powerful influence he had felt, finding himself in the presence of the Divine. The banquet audience applauded with rapt appreciation. Dick confided on the return trip to Boston a fact that was, by then, hardly in doubt: "I was once a great preacher," he said.
I have never personally viewed Richard Newman in any way analogous to John the Baptist, or even-wise though he may be-as one of the Three Wise Men. Were I to seek biblical precedence, however, the figure of Moses does flash before my mind (though not because of the story in Numbers 12:1 concerning Moses and Zipporah). Rather, the figure of Moses is conjured because of the work Dick has done to bring us to the brink of the bibliographical Promised Land. He has led us, he has scolded us, he has been at times impatient with "his people," who are, in fact, all those who want truly to enter into the land of serious scholarly work in a field we both love. He possesses an unequivocal love of learning that inspires us all. He has taught us, he has reasoned with us, he has cried out at our ignorance and our slipshod ways. And he has helped us to greater knowledge and toward understanding.
In the review of James Abajian's reference work to which I referred earlier, Dick concluded with the following observation: "Abajian dedicates the present volume to Dorothy Porter Wesley, the greatest bibliographer of Afro-Americana. By the dedication and perseverance that produced this monumental work, his name is one of the few that deserves to be linked with hers." I would like to suggest that the very same may be said about the person we honor this afternoon. Dick, I am proud to be your friend and colleague. I salute you for finding and being faithful to your vocation.
1. A slightly altered version of this essay was read on June 20, 2003 on the occasion of Richard Newman's retirement from the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, Harvard University and was published in Freedom on My Mind: Richard Newman's Life and Work (Cambridge, MA: Carpenter Books, 2003). The volume contains a comprehensive bibliography of Newman's writings, and copies are available from Ken Carpenter.