Washington, Paul M.

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Paul M. Washington

Religious reformer, minister

Aman of righteous discontent, Paul M. Washington was the head of the Church of the Advocacy, which gained national attention in 1968 when it hosted the first national Black Power Convention. Washington was a controversial figure and social crusader who agitated for the acceptance of women in the ministry, civil rights, reparations for the descendants of slaves, prison reform, and later, partnership benefits for gay city workers. He rose from meager beginnings in Charleston, South Carolina to become known as a compassionate minister with a passion for helping the oppressed and the disaffected.

Paul Matthews Washington was born in Charleston, South Carolina on May 26, 1921, to Tom Washington, a blacksmith, and Mayme Washington, a school librarian. His only sibling was a sister. He was named Paul because Mayme Washington "so admired the courage and the eloquence of the Apostle Paul," Washington wrote in Other Sheep I Have. His father was a hardworking man, who gave his weekly paycheck to Mayme Washington, and she issued out the money, including his car fare.

Washington's mother was determined that he would be a minister. He was expected to join the church and work at a part-time job by the time he was ten years old. Before he reached that age, Washington's mother obtained a job for her son with a family friend, a printer named Saxton Wilson. She took him to Memorial Baptist Church where they attended a revival meeting. Deeply moved, he asked to be baptized and to join the church.

In high school, Washington saw black Charleston's real class structure. Since the public high schools offered classes through the eleventh grade only, college-bound blacks had a choice of enrolling at the Roman Catholic high school or at historic Avery Institute, a combined high school and teacher's college. At Avery, the principal discouraged Washington, suggesting he lacked the appropriate background for Charleston's black elite, and they lived in the wrong section of town—a racially-mixed section with poor whites who lived alongside working class blacks. Washington grew up with knowledge of class and race in the South.

Washington left Charleston when he was seventeen years old and headed for the historically black institution, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania. Instead of following his mother's prescribed course, initially Washington wanted to become a doctor. Eventually, though, he came back to the idea of the ministry. Lincoln's Episcopal chaplain, Reverend Matthew Davis, visited Washington and persuaded him to join St. Mark's. To the Washing-tons, this was a radical change: historically, St. Mark's accommodated light skinned, upper-class blacks, and the Washingtons were neither. Also, Washington was raised a Baptist. Washington remained under Davis's wing, and on June 14, 1943, he was confirmed in the chapel of the Episcopal Church on Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia. Afterward, Bishop Hart, who confirmed him, sent Washington to Philadelphia Divinity School where he was the first black seminarian to live in the residence halls (other blacks had lived with black families). As a part of the school's requirement, Washington took pastoral training at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

In 1947, Washington was ordained a priest. He had met Christine Jackson, a recent high school graduate, whom he married on August 23. The couple went to Liberia, where their first two sons were born. Washington spent six years at Cuttington College in Liberia, where he also served as the school's business manager. With the skills he learned from his father, Washington helped to construct college buildings in the bush. In time, he became a full-time teacher and pastor of two congregations. One was English-speaking while Kru people comprised the second congregation, which he addressed through an interpreter. When the couple returned to Philadelphia in 1954, Washington was named vicar of St. Cyprian's-in-the-Meadows, a church in Eastwick with a black congregation. Located in Philadelphia's extreme southwestern corner, the area was thoroughly integrated both by race and by economic status. While there, Washington began a prison ministry that became an important part of his work for some time.

On June 15, 1962, Washington became rector of the Church of the Advocate. His vision was for the church to be known for its compassion and love—one that responded to human need, such as ministering to the poor, the hungry, the incarcerated, and all who were socially marginalized. This church was located in north Philadelphia which was, in those days, an area referred to by some as "the jungle." Many interpreted the nickname as a reflection of racial prejudice and fear. Poverty, broken homes, joblessness, overcrowding, landlord neglect, and an abundance of social problems were in evidence there. There were positive aspects as well, however; proud blacks lived in well-tended row houses and loved the community. Washington began his work by taking stock of the community and its relationship to the church. With the rectory next door to the church, he put in place immediately an open-door policy. He gave himself fully to everyone, with special concern for the needy who were usually treated poorly by social agencies and others who were in position to help. In his autobiography, Washington said: "I did not come to the Advocate with an agenda for social change. I came to be a pastor." His congregation remained small, compared to those of other Protestant churches, but the church was a focal point for many of Philadelphia's pressing needs during the turbulent 1960s.


Born in Charleston, South Carolina on May 26
Enters Lincoln University in Pennsylvania
Graduates from Philadelphia Divinity School
Ordained as priest in the Episcopal Church; marries Christine Jackson on August 23; begins six-year stay as teacher at Cuttington College and local pastor in Liberia
Becomes vicar of St. Cyprians-in-the-Meadows in Philadelphia
Becomes rector of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia
Begins service on Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission
Hosts Black Unity Rally
Hosts first national Black Power Convention at Church of the Advocate
Begins support to agitate for black reparations
Opens church to Black Panther Party's National Convention; receives Doctor of Divinity degree from Philadelphia Divinity School
Hosts Philadelphia ordination of eleven women to priesthood
Serves as delegate to conference on U.S. intervention in Iran
Appointed to Philadelphia Special Investigating Committee (MOVE Commission); over 1,000 supporters gather to honor his work
Retires from Church of the Advocate; takes on title of rector emeritus
Attends American Institute for International Relations in Moscow
Publishes Other Sheep I Have: The Autobiography of Father Paul M. Washington
Participates in the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
Dies of heart failure in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 7

Persuaded by Black Power Movement

By 1964, Washington was involved in civil and human rights. For seven years he served on Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission. While at first he supported Martin Luther King's passive resistance, by the end of the decade he was attracted to the black power movement and the militant stance of some blacks. His church became known for opening its doors to radical groups. One historical event that his church hosted was the first national Black Power Convention of 1968 that brought in leading black activists, such as Stokely Carmichael (later self-renamed Kwame Ture) and H. Rap Brown. It also brought national attention from the media and FBI probes. His church was known nationwide as the center of the Black Power movement in Philadelphia. Although previous conferences had created racial tensions and fears of disruptions in the cities where they were held, Washington believed deeply in the purpose of the 1968 conference and agreed to serve as host. He wrote in his autobiography that those who gathered at the conference were "sheep that I as a shepherd knew. They knew my voice and I knew theirs." He admitted, however, that at times he felt uneasy because "Black Power meant different things to different people." Although he participated in the conference, in fact, Washington lacked certain credentials for one associated with extremists.

The conference had as its theme "Black Self-Determination and Black Unity through Direct Action." Washington helped to alleviate the fears of many who thought that the thousands of activists might cause disruption within the church or the city. As local police officers raided the local Black Panthers' office and stripped some of its members to their underwear, Washington became even more anxious about blacks' reaction. In the end, Washington was credited with helping to keep peace and promote goodwill, and for helping to maintain an overall positive mood.

Washington and his church called a Black Unity Rally on February 4, 1966, hosting over two hundred people at the parish hall. Those who attended included Julian Bond and white and black members of CORE, SNCC, and other activist groups. The next day, the local media called the rally reverse discrimination, while a fellow Episcopalian minister called it "segregation in the House of the Lord." Still, Washington remained adamant that the conference was needed.

The Black Power movement entered another phase in 1969, when James Forman of the SNCC began to agitate for reparations for black Americans. He began his demand at Riverside Church in New York City, as he walked down the aisle during a Sunday service. "The Black Manifesto" that the National Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC) prepared at its Detroit conference in April 1969 made the case for reparations. The demand was for $500 million from Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. Foreman's presentation was dramatic, and the manifesto's demands frightened many religious whites. Washington became involved when he initiated a meeting with Muhammad "Mo" Kenyatta, a young Baptist preacher who had worked with Forman in civil rights struggles in the South and was a Philadelphia-area organizer for BEDC. In July 1969, Kenyatta demanded reparations from the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Washington served on the Diocesan Council, and as the council debated the issue, he suggested that the word "restitution" replace "reparations." Thus, the Diocese of Pennsylvania responded to the demand by setting up the Restitution Fund, which was to be administered through the Restitution Fund Commission. None of the funds ever went to BEDC, however. After continuing debate in various conventions, church conferences, and committees, with Washington supporting the cause, nothing was done; instead, there was a backlash in the church against the idea of reparations. By September, the FBI probed the contents of Kenyatta's speech and considered grand jury proceedings.

Washington was controversial because of his activities and because he had caught the eye of federal officials. For example, in 1970, as Philadelphia was caught up in racial tension, Washington opened his church to the Black Panther Party's National Convention. In 1980 he and eight others defied a federal travel ban that Attorney General Ramsey Clark issued and attended a conference on U.S. intervention in Iran, at the same time that the country held fifty-three Americans hostage.

Washington's controversial views were brought to national and international attention in 1974. This time the defiance was in favor of the ordination of women to the Episcopal priesthood. Washington bucked church rules, shocked the Episcopal Church, and permitted three retired bishops to ordain eleven women. Although black Bishop Barbara Harris, a protégé of Washington's, was not among that group, in September 1988 she was elected suffragan bishop of the 110,000-member diocese of Massachusetts and became the first woman consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church. By 1977, the church sanctioned such ordination, the stage having been set three years earlier. Church liberals and conservatives, however, remain at odds in their view on the issue.

Mayor W. Wilson Goode appointed Washington to the Philadelphia Special Investigating Committee (also known as the MOVE Commission) that reviewed the city's bombing of the compound for the organization MOVE on May 13, 1985. That tragedy ended with eleven people burned to death and sixty-one homes destroyed in West Philadelphia. John Africa founded the organization in the late 1960s.

In 1990, Washington traveled to Moscow where he attended a meeting of the American Institute for International Relations. Continuing his activism, Washington was attracted to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., held in 1995, and he joined the group as a passionate supporter. However, Washington had contempt for the evangelical Promise Keepers, a conservative men's movement. He became a member of a group of clergy that challenged the fundamentalist organization. His opposition to the group placed him at odds with some black religious leaders who believed that a stronger male leadership was needed in the home. Taking another unpopular stance, Washington opposed Philadelphia's black clergy who denounced domestic partnership protection for homosexual city workers. As controversial as he remained throughout his religious practice, his church never censured him.

In 1970, the Philadelphia Divinity School awarded Washington the Doctor of Divinity degree. In all, Washington received five honorary doctorates and over seventy awards for his dedication to peace and justice. These included the National Urban League's Whitney M. Young Award for Community Service; the Golden Anniversary Award from the National Association of Christians and Jews; and the Philadelphia Award. In 1985 over one thousand civic, political, and religious people gathered to honor him and to celebrate his work. According to Macklin and Wagenveld in the Philadelphia Inquirer, at that gathering, William H. Gray III, then a U. S. representative, called him "the high priest of the progressive movement in Philadelphia." In 1994, Washington published Other Sheep I Have: The Autobiography of Father Paul M. Washington, which he wrote with the assistance of David M Gracie. According to the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Washington kept a personal planner—a leather-bound calendar in which he wrote words of inspiration. He wrote messages from the scripture, kept names of civil rights martyrs, and other information, and whenever he was asked to speak he could easily consult his planner as needed. He also kept dates and appointments—all reminders of the race struggle and the hard work that he did to help create a just society.

Father Washington, as he was often called, was a lean, bespectacled man. He had a commanding yet approachable appearance. William R. Machlin and Mark Wagenveld for the Philadelphia Inquirer called him "a compelling preacher with a deep, sonorous voice, whose highly refined speaking style encompassed both the thunderous expressions of the best African American preachers and the cool restraint of the Episcopal liturgical tradition." When he retired in 1987, Washington was named rector emeritus and moved from the Church of the Advocate rectory. He lived in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia and had a vacation home in Cape May, New Jersey. In the late years of his life, Washington endured repeated bouts of ill health. He suffered chronic muscle pain and his retirement was not restful. After a long illness, Washington died on October 7, 2002, of heart failure, at Lankenau Hospital. His survivors included his wife Christine, to whom he was married for fifty-four years; three sons (Marc, Keman, and Michael); a daughter (Donyor); and seven grandchildren. A memorial service was held at the Church of the Advocate, with Philadelphia native Bishop Barbara Harris officiating. She was one of several speakers who testified to his life and dedication to helping the oppressed.



Who's Who among African Americans. "Obituaries." 16th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2003.


Corsaletti, Louis T. "Paul M. Washington." Obituaries in the News. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/national/AP-Deaths.html (Accessed 9 October 2002).

Moore, Acel. "How Great Was His Faithfulness: Recalling Father Washington." Philadelphia Inquirer. http://www.philly.com/mid/philly/news/columnists/accl_moore/4249140.htm (Accessed 10 October 2002).

                              Jessie Carney Smith

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