Authored by anon in “In the Shadow of the Church: Black Study in the Town of Davidson“
last updated 02.09.2021
In 1950, a wooden building in Brady’s Alley –near the contemporary Davidson Post Office– caught fire in the summer heat. The flames quickly spread to nearby buildings, where many of the College’s Black employees were living at the time. According to the oral history of Mildred Thompson, word of the conflagration spread quickly to Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where Reverend Carl Pritchett was teaching a children’s service. The reverend immediately took the young children, all of whom were white and most of whom appear from the photograph to be between the ages of 4 and 12, to see the damage done by the fire. In the story that Thompson (one of the children present) tells, this was an act of progressive theology: Pritchett reportedly said that he “could not preach in a church where the shadow of the church falls on poverty.”
This photo is taken from behind the backs of the white Sunday School pupils, as though the viewer is one of the children being taught. Reverend Pritchett is facing the children –though not facing the camera– with his arm outstretched to two Black men and one Black woman, identified in the photo metadata as the Lowery family. The photograph is slightly overexposed, obscuring some of the details in their faces. This overexposure also creates a white section of the picture, with the children sitting in the bright sunlight, and a black section of the picture, with the Lowery family standing in front of their burned home.
I am interested in the ways that this image depicts the racial socialization of young white children in the Presbyterian Church, as in Jennifer Ritterhouse’s Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Children Learned Race. What did children learn from this experience? Was that knowledge, and the way that they learned it, in line with Davidson College’s educational mission?
According to Thompson and the town history website, the Brady’s Alley Fire marked a turning point in terms of equitable housing access in Davidson. Pritchett was one of several College-associated white Presbyterian pastors who advocated for housing justice, notably including Minister of Students Rush Otey, who was part of a consciousness-raising initiative about substandard housing rented by the College in 1974. The ways that Davidsonian articles and Mildred Thompson’s oral history depict Otey and Pritchett respectively as uniquely progressive theologians are intimately connected to the ways in which the “Davidson canon” characterizes the College as having reached a uniquely Presbyterian ideal. In what ways is this image framed by “the shadow of the church?”