by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
When Lloyd Douglas began as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, in the fall of 1909, his daughters Betty and Virginia were still toddlers. They had no significant memories of life in Washington, but their mother, Besse, told them about it. Here is an excerpt from their book about their father.
In Washington we lived in a house which Mother described to us as being quite unique, a kind never to be seen except in that odd city. It was one of a long row of brown houses all stuck together at the sides. The kitchen was in the basement, dark and dismal even on the finest day. The food came bumping up through the walls on a dumb-waiter to the dining room on the first floor.
No lady could do her own work in that house so we had a cook, a fat colored mammy whose name was Emily. Emily loved us all dearly and Mother became so devoted to her and dependent upon her advice that when we finally moved away she feared for a while she would never be able to manage her house and children alone. The old black lady had lived all her life in Washington and knew all the intricacies of social deportment. There was a kind of etiquette which originated in the highest government circles and sifted on down through the layers of society to the lowest of civil servants.
To our mother, fresh from the back-fence friendliness of Lancaster, it was a cold and baffling experience to stand in the afternoon at the front window and watch through the curtains the ladies sitting in their carriages while their colored drivers came to the door with cards.
The first time Emily brought these to her she looked at them, holding them gingerly between the tips of two fingers. ‘One corner is folded down; does that mean anything?’
Emily said, ‘That means her husband wishes he could come too, but he couldn’t, honey.’
‘It wasn’t much of a call, anyway,’ Mother said wistfully.
‘Never you mind,’ Emily consoled her, ‘some ladies will come and stay for a real chat.’
‘But what’ll I do about these cards?’ Mother was still holding them out as if they were a live insect. She told us how Emily laughed with her stomach hopping up and down under her apron.
But after it was all explained about the ‘at homes’ and the courtesy calls she found it all too formidable and retired as much as she could to the company of her small daughters.Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), 64-65.
The Washington newspapers actually printed names of women who would be “at home” today and “receiving callers.” It was all part of the protocol. Nellie Taft, who was First Lady at the time, also mentions it in her autobiography, Recollections of Full Years. She, too, was a Midwesterner who came to Washington and had to learn the ins and outs of the social scene.
Meanwhile, within his first few months as pastor, Lloyd Douglas was forming not-in-person friendships of his own. In a sermon on December 12, 1909, he was talking about the Parable of the Virgins, some of whom ran out of oil, and that led him to talk about the conservation of natural resources. He mentioned Gifford Pinchot, who was Chief of the United States Forest Service, first under President Theodore Roosevelt and then under William Howard Taft. Although Pinchot had gotten along well with Roosevelt, his relationship with Taft was dicey, since Taft’s Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, was in favor of cutting down forests for commercial purposes, and Taft sided with Ballinger rather than Pinchot.
Douglas came out in support of Pinchot.
He didn’t get involved in politics very often, but when he did, it made headlines. Pinchot read about it and sent him a letter of thanks. I can find no evidence that they ever met, so this was not much of an improvement over the “friendships” Besse was making. But at least Douglas got an autographed letter out of it.
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