My clergy education begins
This is a selection from a memoir, “Give Light…” of the six decades Frances Stebbins has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.
The week after Charlie and I arrived at The Roanoke World-News, City Editor Albert G. (Smitty) Smith told me one of my major duties would be to cover the twice-monthly meetings of the Roanoke Ministers Conference. On the first and third Monday mornings at 11 a.m., the clergy gathered in Boxley Chapel of the big First Baptist Church on Third Street Southwest three blocks from the newspaper.
Since I didn’t yet drive, it was no problem getting there, for with most businesses and churches of consequence downtown, a lot of walking went on especially around the lunch hour. But we evening paper reporters were always under time pressure, for our deadline was usually at 1:30 p.m. Sometimes when the paper was especially full of ads, my deadline was advanced by a half hour. That meant we soon got used to organizing and writing our stories quickly.
If on an out-of-town assignment – rare for me – we used a pay or free phone to call in our stories. A reporter who was unoccupied typed them fast as we dictated. I remember one such memorable occasion which will be related later.
No one had a formal lunch hour on evening papers. We brought our bagged lunch as did others in the newsroom. The more sociable waited until after 2 p.m. when the copy was all in and being edited by the chronically harassed Smith. A favorite eatery was the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel across Second Street from the paper. Another nearby grill was frequented by lawyers busy at the city’s impressive Courthouse just across Roanoke’s main downtown street, Campbell Avenue.
The clergy meeting that bright February day in 1953 was presided over by the Rev. William B. Denson whose Melrose Baptist Church in the heart of Northwest Roanoke was one of the major congregations in the city. There was, as usual, a speaker. He was H. Grady Moore, a Presbyterian layman and manager of the Veterans Administration Regional Office then next door to the newspaper. Moore reflected on what he wanted to see in his minister. A likable personality and a good preacher who set as priorities over theological erudition.
I don’t know what the business of the day was at that meeting, but soon afterward I learned that the control of alcoholic beverages within the city was a major concern of several clergymen, especially from the Baptist and Methodist groups. Although several state-run liquor stores were found throughout the city, the possibility of any more being opened found resolutions of opposition against what had been an accepted practice of purchasing beer and wine as well as the harder stuff for consumption at home.
When I returned from such meetings, Smith always questioned me carefully. A hard drinker himself, he was a member of The Elks Club and spent much time at its clubhouse on South Jefferson Street. I expect now he feared the collective clergy might bring about something like the return of Prohibition. It seemed quite natural to me that alcohol should be regarded with concern. Although I had learned to enjoy a beer on college dates with Charlie, I had been reared by a teetotaler mother who deplored the return of easy access to social drinking. My husband’s large family was quite different; reunions of the Southside Virginia clans showed me several alcoholics who were not only tolerated but loved.
The challenge the clergy presented to the young female reporter’s social conscience came, not through objection to drink or to possible Roman Catholic dogma entering the public schools, but to the dark cloud of racial integration then looming like an approaching thunderstorm.
The yellowed newspaper clippings of my conference actions reveal the day that Colonel Francis Pickens Miller, a liberal Virginia political figure as well as a Presbyterian layman, addressed the meeting. He strongly and publicly opposed the then near-total control of Democratic Virginia politics by the fiscally conservative and white establishment views of the Commonwealth’s United States Senators Carter Glass and Harry F. Byrd.
Miller told his audience that racial integration of public schools was coming soon, and that Negro equality would soon be mandated by law throughout the South. It was long overdue, he asserted. I was surprised and dismayed that many clergies agreed with him.
Despite being introduced in college to the strongly liberal views of a sociology professor, Dr. Alice Davis, I remained true to my Southern heritage. Like many of my age and background, I feared this social change. Many years later, I learned that the aging Davis had been a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Though my mother had been a devoted follower of FDR, her admiration definitely did not extend to his outspoken wife.
My conflicted soul was further shaken by my first cousin, Sarah Patton Boyle. On the death of my mother before my majority of 21, “Patty” Boyle had become my beloved guardian and mentor in many matters as well as a supporter of my literary ambitions. By 1950, she had become an activist for racial integration around the University of Virginia where her husband taught.
Charlie’s heritage was similar to mine; we were both shocked by my beloved relative’s pride in personally knowing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and later going to jail in the deep south. Her personal story recounted in “The Desegregated Heart” made her nationally known.
As years passed, Charlie and I, like many of our background, accepted the inevitable. My education in liberal spiritual outlook had begun.