Sweet Daddy Madison

Sam Smith, 2005 – Every time I get totally fed up with Washington, something happens to remind me that some of the best of the city isn’t gone, only hidden.

Like the big house on Portal Drive across the street from the one towards which I was heading for a holiday party. I had never seen in this city such an enormous display of Christmas decorations complete with “Seasons Greetings” in lights larger than on any local store.

It was explained to me that the house belonged to Bishop S. C. Madison, patriarch of the House of Prayer for All People, an institution deeply rooted in the history of the city and now spread from California to Florida to New York.

Because of the spectators, it was almost impossible to drive up the street and find a place to park. Later the crowd grew as a brass band began playing jazzed up Christmas carols and other music outside the home. A bus pulled over and let more visitors out. All without a single mention in the media, another part of America that survives underneath the radar.

After awhile, a minister came across the street and invited us to greet the bishop. A small group of us, including another black preacher, A. Knighton Stanley, made our way through the crowd and towards the long steps atop which stood an elderly Bishop Madison flanked by several security men.

Madison and Stanley are both significant figures in local culture, both have roots in the Carolinas, but are quite different in their stories. Madison is a native of Greenville, South Carolina, reared from childhood in the House of Prayer where he later served as a deacon. He became a minister at age 17 under the guidance of Sweet Daddy Grace and by 23 was already on the general council of the church, becoming its bishop in 1991.

A. Knighton Stanley, has been senior minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington since 1968. He is a graduate of Talladega College and holds a master’s degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Howard University. Active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Stanley has become a familiar name on civic boards.

As we walked across the street, I mentioned to our minister host that I had covered the 1960 funeral of Madison’s penultimate predecessor, the remarkable Sweet Daddy Grace. The minister lit up and said, “We’ve got to talk.”

He led us up the steps and introduced the bishop to Stanley, then to the host of the party that was our original destination, and finally to a white couple who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

The bishop offered blessings and It occurred to me that while I may never meet the Pope this wasn’t bad for seconds. We were invited into the house where perhaps 20 smiling, gracious men and women stood around with that ambivalence of those alternatively responsible for security and hospitality. After a tour of the dining room, we were shown an alcove where stood a white statue of Sweet Daddy Grace. I admired it, but couldn’t help the sacrilegious observation that his fingernails were a lot shorter than when I last saw him lying in his coffin. Behind us, a young man sat at a tiny spinet playing the quietest Christmas carols I had ever heard. We turned and went to the living room where Bishop Madison was now seated, exchanged greetings again and departed.

Sam Smith, Multitudes – The Washington I had returned to in the summer of 1957 at the age of 19 was, on the surface, a quiet, rarely air-conditioned southern town. When I first got to Argonne Place, I noticed that the Ontario Theater was playing Love in the Afternoon. At the end of the summer it still was. The radio stations were playing Pat Boone’s Love Letters in the Sand. At the end of the summer they still were. When I worked the late night shift, I would drive to the suburbs listening to a program on WOL called The Cabbie’s Serenade — dedicated, said the host, Al Jefferson, “to all you guys driving the loneliest mile in the world.”

Despite the apparent somnolence, DC was actually undergoing a mass migration of blacks from further south. Almost from its beginning, DC had been the first stop in the promised land. Now the city had just turned into a majority black town.

Despite the demographic trend, however, there was nothing remotely approaching black power. More than once, when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on the overnight action, I was told, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.” It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed “Dos and Don’ts for Negro Congressmen.” One was “Don’t eat in the House dining room.”

The city was run by three commissioners appointed by the president. Many, though, assumed correctly that the real commissioner was the director of the very white Board of Trade. The local papers routinely listed the race of victims and perpetrators in crime stories. A Washington Star veteran recalled “the grieving widow who called me one day after I’d done an obit about her late husband, in which I had referred to him as a D.C. native. “‘He wasn’t no native,’ she shrieked. ‘He was as white as you or I!'” And when I went to cover the annual Brotherhood Week luncheon at a local hotel, a reporter friend leaned over and said, “Do you notice the only Negroes in this place are the waiters?”

This same reporter called me at 2 a.m. the morning after the funeral of Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace, the colorful bishop of the United House of Prayer for All People. “I’m down here waiting for them to choose Daddy Grace’s successor,” he whispered into the phone, “and I’m the only white person here. How about coming down?”

I had covered the funeral earlier that day and had been struck by the jewelry bedizening the lifeless and red, white and blue long finger-nailed form of the late charismatic who one paper said resembled Buffalo Bill. I got dressed and joined my friend at 601 M St. NW — two young, unwelcomed white guys sitting quietly in the pre-dawn darkness of a church basement hallway waiting for the end of a seven-hour deliberation. Finally, the 224 elders from as far away as New Bedford, Mass., and Miami selected Bishop Walter McCullough by about 30 votes.

Daddy Grace has been born Manoel da Graca, a Cape Verde immigrant to New Bedford and a cranberry picker who would come to claim that God had also come to America in his body. He would eventually give baptisms to up to 1,000 at a time and accept “love offerings” from female followers. Among the tenets of his theology: “Salvation is by Grace alone. Grace has given God a vacation. If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God can’t save you.”

Daddy Grace, came to DC in 1927 and, according to Molly Rath in Washington City Paper, left this world a debt-burdened $25 million estate including an 85 room mansion in Los Angeles, a farm in Cuba and a coffee plantation in Brazil. Along with quotations like, “If Moses came here now he would have to follow this man,” pointing to himself.

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