History of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
The congregation was founded in 1954 as the Unitarian Fellowship of Tuscaloosa, during troubled times in the country and Alabama. It immediately found itself in the midst of the civil rights movement.
In 1956 two African American women were admitted to the University of Alabama. They were not allowed to live on campus but invited to attend classes. Only one of the students, Autherine Lucy, enrolled in classes. The fellowship’s president, George W. DeSchweintz, invited Ms. Lucy to attend services as a show of support in the face of racial prejudice. She did attend and the service proceeded without incident. However this event made the newspapers and caused quite a stir in town.
In the days following Ms. Lucy’s admission riots broke out on campus and throughout the city. Members of the Ku Klux Klan roamed the campus in red hoods and carrying baseball bats the day after the service. The KKK burned crosses on the University President’s yard and threatened bomb scares. At one point the car in which Miss Lucy was riding was surrounded by a mob, and she barely managed to escape with her life.These riots led the University to suspend her from the school for her own safety.
The Fellowship was divided on her attendance at the fellowship and at the university. Some members pushed for a petition to reinstate her at the school. The petition failed. Membership and attendance dropped drastically and continued to drop for the next several years.
In the early 1960s the fellowship discussed disbanding, but during the mid to late-60s membership began to grow again, particularly following Governor Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” and the successful integration of the University of Alabama. During this time there was heated discussion about the freedom riders coming to Alabama to register Black voters. Should members of the church offer them home hospitality? There was concern for the safety of members’ homes. Longtime member Gene Byrd believes some members did offer home hospitality but does not recall who those members might have been.
In March 1965 Unitarian minister James Reeb was killed after he and hundreds of other ministers responded to a call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to join in a voter registration march in Selma, Alabama. Members from this congregation participated in the voter registration march and attended the memorial service in Selma.
In the 1970s, member Betty Mego at the request of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee began advocating for the fellowship, now the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, to affiliate with the Southern Student Project. This project was a student exchange program where Black students from Tuscaloosa would go to State College, Pennsylvania to attend school. This project met harsh resistance by the fellowship. She writes in a letter dated May 1970 to Antoinette Holl of State College, “There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that this (the $100) represents ‘a generous contribution and all that is really necessary’ in the minds of several members of our UUA group. Strange revelations have been surfacing.” The fellowship refused to affiliate officially.
During this time, Rev. Carl Bretz arrived to work at Bryce Hospital. He served as president of the board and with his leadership strengthened the fellowship and it began to grow once again. The congregation brought in Rev. AJ Matill as its first part time minister in 1979. During his tenure began one of our longest running traditions, the annual Halloween picnic at Moundville which continues today. When Rev. Matill moved on, Rev. Bretz served as part time minister until 1989. One of his outreach activities, Meals on Wheels, continues to this day,
The fellowship met in a variety of rented locations. The longest residence was at the Hillel Center on the UA campus, but they also met at the YMCA and briefly at the Masonic Lodge, before purchasing the current property on New Watermelon Road and building the church, which opened in January 1992.
The congregation was served by a series of part time ministers: Revs. Michael Seider, Joan Armstrong, Barbara Jamestone, Chris Brownlee, Jeff Jones, and Jennifer Innis. Rev. Innis served as the congregation’s first full time interim minister. In 2001 the congregation called the Rev. Michael Thompson as its first full time settled minister. During this time the organization voted to change its name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.
In 2006, following a series of arsons of Black churches in rural west Alabama, many persons throughout the country mobilized to support and rebuild the burned churches. The Congregation supported this outreach by providing transportation and home hospitality.
In 2008, Rev. Fred L Hammond came on as a consulting minister on a part time basis. The congregation began to grow again. In April of 2011 an E-4 tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. Seven member families lost homes in the tornado. The UU Trauma Response Ministry team came to assist the congregation in recovery. Congregations across the nation sent cards and financial support to assist our families.
Also that year, Rev. Hammond was arrested at the state capitol in protest of HB 56, Alabama’s anti-immigrant law. In 2012, the congregation provided home hospitality and meeting space to the Undocubus, a mobile immigrant education program.
In 2013, the congregation called Rev. Hammond as its full time settled minister. He served until 2018 and was succeeded by Rev. Ruth Vann Lillian, our current minister.
In recent years the Congregation has continued its focus on social justice initiatives. The Congregation contributes one half of its offering plate each Sunday to a worthy nonprofit organization. It has provided financial and/or logistical support to several nascent organizations, including Move To Amend, Druid City Pride, The Peoples Loan Project, and others. We continue a now thirty-year commitment to Meals on Wheels.