Learning from our past

Learning from our past October 6, 2003

"Some are guilty. All are responsible."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Didn't post much this weekend, my dad was in town. Here's a story I learned from my dad.

Dad used to practice law in New Jersey. Years ago, he was researching a title deed in North Plainfield and found that the buyers back in the 1920s had signed a "restrictive covenant."

Such clauses were common in America for much of the 20th century. They were not strictly legally binding, but they played an important role in the mosaic of formal and informal discrimination that has prevented — and still prevents — African Americans from building equity and from "competing" on a level playing field.

Much is made of the income gap between black and white Americans. The wealth gap is even wider — and far more damaging. (For an insightful and in-depth look at how and why, see Dalton Conley's dynamite book Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America.)

Ethnic and religious restrictive covenants have been used to discriminate against many groups in America — blacks, Jews, Irish or even Catholics. This particular deed, in North Plainfield, specified that the buyers promised never to resell the property to "Negroes."

The property was in the same neighborhood as Hydewood Park Baptist Church, where my family attended. So Dad checked that deed and, sadly, found that our church too had agreed to a "restrictive covenant" when it acquired the property in the '20s.

Dad made a copy and showed it to our church's pastor — a man named Donald Urey. He responded agrily and defensively. What's your point? That was a long time ago! It's not like I signed that, and we certainly wouldn't today, so why dig up old dirt?

Pastor Urey believed that the past was past, and didn't concern him. But as the Big Book says, "You may be done with the past, but the past isn't done with you." Hydewood sat a block and a half from the border with Plainfield — a predominantly black city, made famous by the Kerner Commission. Yet our congregation was as white as the walls onto which we projected the lyrics to praise choruses.

Years later, Hydewood had a new pastor. Dad showed Pastor Fletcher the old deed from the '20s. He didn't get angry, or defensive, just deeply sad. And then, after a thoughtful moment, fearful.

"It makes you wonder, doesn't it?" he said. "You wonder how Christians could do such a thing. And then you wonder what it is we're doing today that will cause Christians to look back decades from now and ask 'How could they have done this? How could they have thought this was right?'"

I'd like to tell you that there's more to this story. That something at Hydewood changed. But it didn't.

Yet I still think the different responses of these two pastors is significant.

Hydewood Park Baptist Church is a small, peripheral player in America's epic history of discrimination. As the heirs of that history, we must choose how the past will be allowed to shape our present and our future.

Pastor Urey's response — self-righteous anger and a defensive exemption from the sins of the past — is easy to find wherever this history is discussed. It's the I-didn't-own-slaves-so-get-off-my-back argument. But Pastor Fletcher wisely saw the danger in this stance. What right have we to condemn our forebears for uncritically accepting the sins of their time and culture if we are uncritically accepting the sins of our own? By the same measure we judge, we can expect ourselves to be judged some day.

White guilt is the bugbear of southern strategy Republicans — who reject guilt and therefore reject responsibility. It can also be the self-congratulatory hairshirt of northern liberals — who embrace guilt, and therefore do not embrace responsibility.

But I'm not terribly interested in talking about guilt. I'm more interested in responsibility. That quote from Rabbi Heschel could probably be amplified:

"Some are guilty. All are responsible. And nowadays, most are guilty of refusing responsibility."

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13 responses to “Learning from our past”

  1. Yet the same people who claim no responsibility for the sins of the past have no problems with lauding the confederacy. I live way too close to Virginia, and 2 miles from DC there’s a major street named after Jefferson Davis.
    As a yankee (upstate NY) who learned that the confederacy was evil, I find this most depressing.

  2. I’m living in Plainfield, NJ. It’s a nice town. A little run down at the edges, not quite as spiffy as some, but I like it. Lots of big old houses, most of them split up into apartments now, like the one we live in. Lots of big old trees. Beautiful gardens. Lots of churches; we live right next to one of them. The faces I see when I go for a walk, well, some are black. Plenty are South and Central American immigrants, too. I can buy delicacies from Ecuador at the local supermarket.
    I know there’s a history here, but Plainfield isn’t locked into its past. Things do change.

  3. But there should be more to the story. Although the covenants aren’t legally binding, they still can and should be removed from the deed by the owners. I’m sure the church could find a congregant able to do this pro bono, if they wanted to. Or a law school clinic that would. The anti-miscenginations (sp?) laws stayed on the books long after they were found to be unconstitutional — unenforceable but still wrong.

  4. Well done post. Just one incidental comment for your future reference. “Restrictive Covenant” is a generic term which really just means an agreement to do something that, in this context, runs with the land. Title’s can include lots of different restrictions (often things like “no fences taller than 6 feet,” and the like) that are properly called restrictive covenants. Frankly, I forget the specific term for these things (I think I just called them racist covenants) but I do remember the only reason we even heard about them in law school was to illustrate an unenforceable restriction.

  5. And nowadays, most are guilty of refusing responsibility.

    Didn’t post much this weekend, my dad was in town. Here’s a story I learned from my dad. Dad used to practice law in New Jersey. Years ago, he was researching a title deed in North Plainfield and found that…

  6. I am a member of hydewood and I am black. I am appauled about the things that we don’t know about. I have always felt alone in the church. Now I am begining to wonder if they really want blacks in the church or the services that they have to offer like paying their tithes and helping with the upkeep of the church.
    I have always loved Pastor Fletcher, The church has not being the same since he left. I miss him dearly.

  7. hey Fred, things are changing around here. Come back and take a look we may suprise you…..

  8. Am I “responsible” for the past sins of generations? No. Am I “guilty” also of those sins? No. Those words are loaded terms.
    I feel and hate the sin that was fueling that past behavior. Instead of stirring ill will and naming and condemning those involved (which shapes our present and future), it’s incumbent on us to make positive change in the time in which we now live. It is time to change the deed – it is “right”. It is time to be the light and salt to which we are called.

  9. I attended Hydewood from 1958 to 1966 while living in Plainfield, NJ. The background in the Bible including heavy memorization was priceless, and I am foreever grateful. I attended Plainfield HS and we lived in an integrated neighborhood called Hillside Terrace. When my Dad died in the 1990’s, about half of the attendees at Hydewood for his funeral were Black. Hydewood taught me to put the Bible above church doctrine. We wrote term papers on God the Father, the diety of Jesus Christ, the work of the Hoy Spirt, and the inspiration of the Bible. I received the Herald of Vhrist award there, only the second person to do so at that time. I became close to Christ and obeyed him rather than the church where there was a difference. I conscientiously opposed the Vietnam War when Pastor Sweeting was there. I was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues which only a few there did (Linda Jamison was one I remember). I married a Black woman from Philadelphia in 1974 and we celebrated our 30th anniversary. I am now an Evangelist with radio programs on WTMR, Camden, NJ and serve God with my whole heart. Hydewood had its faults, and I don’t doubt the covenant, but frankly, most people a lot more recently than the 1920’s have done much to hurt Black people – I heard a gospel singer formerly of the Cathedrals make questionable racial comments, even after I advised him before he was offensive. We have to move on and work for justice. It is a priority of the Holy Spirit. Check out our URL,

  10. hey john firsttime logging on to your web site.pretty intense.please pray for me .go eagles!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! god bless.

  11. hi john first time on your site intense huh.go eagles please pray for me …………god bless.

  12. Dear Slacktivist,
    The discussion on your website about Hydewood Park Baptist Church and the restrictive covenant has come to our attention, and I wanted to inform you of action taken in an attempt to address these past wrongs. On September 16th 2007, Hydewood convened a business meeting to discuss our role in the restrictive covenant and an appropriate response. As part of the proceedings of that meeting, the congregation voted unanimously to approve the statement below. While the statement should be self explanatory, I invite anyone interested in further information to contact me at Thank you.
    Pastor Miche Maniguet
    for Hydewood Park Baptist Church
    September 16, 2007
    In 2003, allegations were made in an internet blog to the effect that Hydewood Park Baptist Church had been party to a racially discriminatory restrictive covenant in the 1920’s. Hydewood leadership became aware of these allegations in 2004. Based on information in the blog, Hydewood’s property deed was searched to determine the veracity of this claim. At that time, no corroboration of the claim was found, and the subject was tabled. Then in June 2007, Pastor Maniguet felt led to investigate the matter further. After three visits to the Somerset County Clerk’s office, the pastor found the document referred to in the blog.
    Upon review of the document, these allegations were found to be true. Specifically, that Hydewood, through its representative officer, was among fifty one co-signatories to a restrictive covenant. In this covenant, the signatories agreed that from the date of the document’s filing with the county clerk on June 1, 1927 until it’s stated expiration date on January 1, 1950, that any lands owned by the signatories in whole or in part “shall not be leased, sold or conveyed to or occupied by Negroes” without previous written consent of two thirds of the signatories.
    We recognize that in signing this restrictive covenant, Hydewood agreed with others to act in a racially discriminatory fashion against persons of African descent. It is true that none of the original members of Hydewood from 1927 continue to attend, nor is it likely that any such survive, and that the covenant itself expired on January 1, 1950 and finally, the Supreme Court of the United States decreed in 1940 in Hanberry vs. Lee that such covenants are unenforceable in light of the Constitution. Nevertheless, Hydewood admits that in becoming a party to this document, and to the extent that we have acted upon its tenets, and because of the timeless solidarity of God’s people (Daniel 9:1-20), we have sinned against the African American people and against God. We deeply regret this action, any harmful impact it has had on the African American community, the negative influence and example we have been to the community at large, and the poor testimony we have been for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We seek forgiveness from and restoration with the African American community, and ultimately from God, who shows no partiality.
    In light of our desire for full correction of our errors, it is appropriate to state that the actions above reflect the confluence of two factors. First, that because of inborn sin, human beings are bent toward all kinds of evils, including racial prejudice. Second, that the sinful bent of humanity requires instruction in the truth of God’s Word to have any hope of remediation. In light of all the above, Hydewood seeks to clearly document the biblical truths which will serve as a corrective prescription to the problem of racial discrimination, as follows:
    1. Humanity was created by God, in his own image, and as such all are equally worthy of respectful and honorable treatment. (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6)
    2. All human ethnic groups are descended from a single human parentage. (Acts 17:26)
    3. God makes no preferential distinctions on the basis of ethnic, economic, education, age, sex, or any other superficial factors as is common among men. (Romans 2:9-11; Ephesians 6:9; James 2:1,9)
    4. Both Old and New testaments picture faith in the one true God as available to and experienced by all nations and people groups. (Psalm 22:27-29, 45:17, 117:1-2; Acts 10:34-35)
    5. The eternal kingdom of God is portrayed as one in which multitudes of people from every tribe, tongue and nation are represented in heaven. Those present will be there solely due to their personal response of repentance toward the Creator and a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin and resurrected Son of God. (Revelation 7:9-14)
    6. Features such as skin, hair and eye color, or any other “racial” distinctives are the result of micro-evolution – the interaction of natural genetic diversity with the intermarriage pool, geographical and other environmental factors. Therefore, features associated with certain ethnic groups in no way reflect random macro-evolutionary processes, which cannot produce the structured biological information necessary to develop adaptations. There is no human ethnic group more highly “evolved” than any other. (Genesis 1:21-25, 6:20-21, 7:2-3)
    In light of the biblical truths above, Hydewood wishes to document its future direction and vision for its ministry as one in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is offered freely to people of all ethnic and social backgrounds without distinctions, both locally and globally. It is the desire of Hydewood that our church would become one which mirrors the vast diversity of the local community of central New Jersey, values equally all people without distinction, and reflects in microcosm the eternal kingdom of God as envisioned in Revelation 7:9-14 and many other scriptural passages.
    It is the hope and prayer of Hydewood Park Baptist Church that our past sins can be put behind us through this confession on our part, and the extension of forgiveness by offended parties. We intend to make every effort to move into a future that will honor these biblical principles to the glory of Jesus Christ and the benefit of all humanity.