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Oral History Interview

Norfolk, Virginia
June 30, 1980
by James R.Sweeney, Old Dominion University

Listen to Interview

Other Guerry Interviews:
August 5, 1980 ; August 12, 1980



Sweeney: This is Monday, June 30, 1980. This is James Sweeney of the Old Dominion University Archives conducting an oral history interview with the Rev. Moultrie Guerry, who was the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Norfolk from 1938 to 1957. And now we will commence the interview with Dr. Guerry.

Dr. Guerry, I would like to begin the interview by asking you about your childhood and your parents.

Guerry: Well, I was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on Lincoln's birthday, and have been very proud of it. In my mother's home - she was Anne McBee, and my father was Bishop William Alexander Guerry, the Bishop of South Carolina. Before that, for fourteen years he was chaplain at the University of the South, an Episcopal University near Chattanooga at Sewanee, Tennessee, from 1893 to 1907. And having been born on February 12, 1899, it was during his chaplaincy.

Sewanee was built on top of a mountain to bring the farm boys out of the malarial swamps and southland, and the school ran from right after Easter to just before Christmas. So far as our day, a vacation was in the winter. And a weatherman told me that that date in 1899 was the coldest in the history of North Carolina. Maybe that's what the matter with me!

So I grew up at Sewanee until Father became Bishop, and when I was eight we moved to Charleston, South Carolina. And that's about my childhood.

Sweeney: Why did you attend a military academy in Charleston, South Carolina for your secondary schooling?

Guerry: An easy answer is my father went there; he taught there between his college and theological training. It was a church school, and the emphasis was not military.


The lower school and the day school boys did not drill, and. I was one of those. But would you like to hear a little bit more about that academy - because its history tells more about my background than anything else?

Sweeney: What was the name of the school?

Guerry: Porter Military Academy. And the founder was the Rev. Anthony Toomer Porter. He founded the Church of the Holy Communion be fore the Civil War. He was against secession, but when the war came he volunteered as a chaplain. Before that he found that the Negro girls and children didn't know how to do much. And one of his women taught one of them to sew. And from that he developed an industrial school that brought them out of abject poverty, especially after emancipation. But let me go to the burning of Columbia.

Many Charlestonians were refugees in Columbia, thinking that Sherman was coming to Charleston. In fact, my wife's mother was a nine day old baby and was taken into the woods to avoid the burning. It would be good to have Porter's account of that incident from inside, in those little things like drunken soldiers resting on bales of cotton and smoking and dropping a match that set fire the bales of cotton that had been brought out of every place so people wouldn't burn them in the houses or in the store- rooms and so forth. In the midst of this fire he saw, men lighting torches and going into buildings. A young Lieutenant named John McQueen saw the difficulty that they were having in a house that was brick, but the roof was of shingles. This Lieu tenant went in there and drove out the vandals, sent soldiers up on top of the roof, and organized a bucket brigade to keep that house from burning down. After the soldiers were leaving, and McQueen was one of the last, Dr. Porter's wife offered him a golden pen or pencil, which he refused, saying nobody would believe he hadn't stolen it.

So Dr. Porter wrote a letter indicating what he had done. A few days after the burning of Columbia, his platoon met with a Con federate platoon and he was wounded and would have been killed by furious men, as you can imagine, but he held up that letter, and the captors took him to Camden and put him in a Confederate hospital. He was nursed back to life. As a matter of fact, when he had been in Camden, he saved a number of houses from burning, so the people poured out their love and appreciation. When he was able to move, Dr. Porter got an old horse and an old buggy, and, walking beside the animal, he drove Lieutenant McQueen up into North Carolina and turned him over to General Sherman. Thereby is going to hang more of my tale!


In Columbia, he was introduced to General Sherman, and General Sherman ordered in his presence, ordered a Colonel to stop the burning. Of course, it was too late. But he said something very interesting. He blamed the governor of the state for the burning because he did not destroy all the liquor in the city. In Giant in Gray, a biography of Wade Hampton, Sherman acknowledged that he put the blame on Hampton's army for the burning for propaganda purposes, but they became great friends. Now to get back to the Holy Communion Institute, which Dr. Porter founded.

Soon his church and parish house, his home and buildings, were filled with 425 boys and 125 girls. Knowing the state very well and knowing many friends who were destitute, he sent out all over the state to get boys who would be capable of a good education, hoping to restore the devastated leadership of the state, and my father was one of those boys, the son of a Minister of a poverty-stricken parish. In 1879 the school had grown so, this boarding school and day school, that Dr. Porter was very desirous to have the arsenal, which had eight acres a block away from his church, big enough for a football field, campus and barracks. And the federal government was going to withdraw' their troops. So he went to Washington, and who should help to make it possible but General Sherman and General Wade Hampton, who were friends. Let me read you what General Sherman says about why he wanted to help Dr. Porter get this arsenal:

"You saved the life of a valuable officer at the risk of your own in the war, and now the government has a piece of 'abandoned property that it does not know what to do with, and here you are with this noble use to put it to. You ought to have a vote of thanks for taking it. You go to General Hampton and General Butler and get them to draw a bill and let them go to the Democrats and me to the Republicans and we will see if we cannot get it done."

So it went through Congress and was signed by the President, and in 1879 they changed the name Holy Communion Institute into Porter Academy. But I can't find out when the "Military" came in. He retired in 1898. So Porter Academy and the life of Dr. Porter represents to me the reunion of the Union, the remarriage of the North and the South. For where could he get money to do all this work, including the Negro school, the seminary which had been destroyed, and the academy, except from the North. So he went North without knowing a soul, but he used a text, "I am your brother Joseph." And you can see the story of reconciliation there. Dr. Porter's autobiography is called Led On Step by Step obtainable at the Porter Gaud School, Charleston, South Carolina.


By the generosity of the Northern people he was sent abroad for his health, and England poured out some $45,000 over a period of years. So it's a right exciting story of the reunion of the Union.

Sweeney: And what years were you in attendance there?

Guerry: I was there from 1910 to 1917. I had to lose one year - a whole year, to the day - from heart trouble. I had wanted to be a great athlete, but I had to change to things more literary. And that year of illness may have had a lot to do with my later decisions.

Sweeney: So then you did not serve in World War I because of that heart problem?

Guerry: That's right.

Sweeney: What induced you to pursue your college education at the University of the South?

Guerry: That's easy. My father was a student there, getting his M.A. And his bachelor of divinity, and after a few years in South Carolina he came back as chaplain. And after he became Bishop he was a trustee. I had two brothers who were students and trustees. My oldest brother went through the prep school as well as the college and, after being head of a prep school in Chattanooga and the president of the University of Chattanooga, he became president at Sewanee. And I was a student, chaplain, and trustee. How could I have missed going to Sewanee? And when my grand daughter went there, she said, "Why don't you want me to go to Sewanee?" I said, "So many Guerrys have been up there, if you didn't like it that would kill me." And she's loved it more than anybody that I can imagine.

Sewanee is sixty miles west of Chattanooga; they have 10,000 acres. It's a closed community, almost. The mountaineers and the townspeople are all a part, as it were, of the university. The South had become less rural by 1907 and the school term was made to conform to the fall, winter, spring terms of other colleges.

Sweeney: And what years were you in attendance at the University of the South?

Guerry: Well, people would think I'd been there four years, but during the war my father was preaching to the soldiers in France. My two older brothers were in the Army, and my younger brother and I stayed with Mother. I don't think I was yet strong enough, really, to go off to college, and Sewanee was a camp for training officers, so my war work was to assist the English professor with his papers at the College of Charleston, a small college, not like ODU, in those days between 250 and 300 students.


So I graduated at Sewanee in 1921 from the college, having studied there in my junior and senior years.

Sweeney: And then you spent a year as an assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston the next year?

Guerry: That's right. They called me back to the college. Then I assisted and taught classes, assisting this wonderful English teacher. The college had begun to spread a little bit; it took in girls.

Sweeney: Could you discuss your year that you spent as an assistant professor there in 1921-22?

Guerry: Well, one significant thing about it happened at home. Bishops nowadays have a great office and assistants and one thing and another. Father directed his diocese, the whole of South Carolina, from his study in the house, all his letters by longhand, except things that needed to be typed, and he would go to St. Philip's Church, where the secretary did that kind of work, and they let him have an office. So I tried to learn to type, and I typed a lot of his letters. And I had an insight into the church and the crying need of little churches and rural parishes, and that led to my thinking about the ministry more seriously.

Sweeney: You didn't give any real consideration to pursuing a career as a college professor, then? That was just a kind of an interim thing, was it - a temporary job, just for a year, the year you taught at the college?.

Guerry: Well, they gave me a professorship. As far as they were concerned, this was to be my career. I didn't think I had the physical strength to go into ministry until after I had a year there, so I went to the Virginia Seminary at Alexandria because I had been associated with Sewanee from childhood, and many felt that I needed exposure to another part of the country and another institution. We had spent our summers at Sewanee during all my youth.

Sweeney: But you never really gave any consideration to becoming a college professor for life?

Guerry: Yes. But I say this experience, working so closely with Father - that moved me over into this other.

Sweeney: Could you explain why it was - perhaps deeper reasons - why you decided to pursue a career in the Church?


Guerry: Well, I think that year of sickness deepened my nature a good deal. And at Sewanee I was thrown with lots of church people; in fact, I roomed with men in the Seminary. They had a stone dormitory. So I was intimately related to the seminarians as well as the college men, and the whole atmosphere of an Episcopal Church college laid a foundation for me. But my work with Father was a deciding factor.

Sweeney: He didn't put pressure on you, though?

Guerry: Not at all.

Sweeney: He didn't want . .

Guerry: He never mentioned it.

Sweeney: Let's talk about your years at the Virginia Theological Semi nary. You received your degree from there in 1925. I'd like you to discuss and reminisce about the curriculum and the life of a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria in the 1920's.

Guerry: This is getting to be quite an autobiography; I don't know if you want so much! I received my D.D. Degree at the seminary in 1944.

Sweeney: That's fine; I do.

Guerry: Well, days were very simple in 1922 to 1925. They had six professors. The dean was Dr. Berryman Green, and you may know the lawyer in town by that name; he was a collateral descendant'. He taught preaching and pastoral theology. Dr. Rollins taught the New Testament, the life of Christ in English. Dr. Kennedy taught it in Greek. Dr. Nelson, an ex-missionary, taught us Hebrew and Old Testament. And Dr. Bell, a great romantic theologian, very inspiring, taught us theology. And the Rev. Dr. Beverley Dandridge Tucker also taught us - I forget what, but I think it was a mixture of history..

So there were only about six men, and Dr. Henry Covington from Old St. Paul's, Norfolk, took the Norfolk-Washington boat once a month and came up to teach us how to practice ministry. That's called practical theology or pastoral theology. And he taught me how to hold a baby so he wouldn't squirm loose and would look at his mother and not at me! It was a very close community. Nobody could get married. We had three of four older men who came married. But two or three of my classmates wanted to get married, so they had to transfer to another Seminary. After World War II they poured in. The whole thing changed. Half the men were married. They were married and made their decisions during the war.


Sweeney: About how many students were there when you were there?

Guerry: Seventy-five. And after the war it went up to 175. It maybe touched 200. And with wives and children, the whole community expanded. They called me there in 1941 to come up from Norfolk and teach pastoral theology, prayer book and liturgy, and to be a chaplain and teach something else. Now they have about six to eight men doing those things.. But the reason I declined was first, I didn't feel I'd had enough parish experience, a little less than four years. And while I was hesitating, Pearl Harbor happened, and I felt that Norfolk was a war front. And I couldn't go to teach students how to do pastoral work if I left my people in the face of war.

Sweeney: Was it a rather closed community, the Seminary at that time, or did you have much interaction with the Episcopal Churches in the Alexandria area?

Guerry: Well, we students got our practicing experience in missions, and we walked two to ten miles. Sometimes we'd get a little car. Or else we assisted in churches in Alexandria and Washington. And that was our experience. It was a pretty closed community, but with these outside contacts; and in the summer we would serve missions in various dioceses.

Sweeney: Where would the missions be? Would they be close by?

Guerry: These at the Seminary during the school year were close by, but in the summer we'd go back to our dioceses and serve in missions there. But when I declined, which was a very lucky thing for the Seminary, they got a man who was a pioneer in clinical training. In other words, in the summer he sent men to hospitals and prisons and asylums so that the people would see the problems of persons at their worst. Some of the men were so unsettled they had to go to psychiatrists themselves. But it did train them in a depth of pastoral work that I never knew. Not being too strong, they didn't put me in a mission where I had to walk all that distance. They put me in charge of a Sunday School at the Seminary - children from the community and the faculty of the Seminary and the faculty of the neighboring Episcopal high school. So I got to teach, in my Sunday School, a lot of people; I even had a Bible class with some of the faculty and wives coming to it.

Sweeney: What did the students do for recreation at the Seminary? Was there much recreation?

Guerry: I don't remember much. I think we had one or two tennis courts, or we'd go over to Episcopal High and play, but most of our recreation was walking! We had to walk two miles into Alexandria.


Sweeney: Now, after you graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary, you spent four years in South Carolina as pastor of three rural mission churches. I wonder, could you tell me about those congregations, and if you had much pastoral contact with the black population in those mission churches? .

Guerry: Well, that's very interesting. My roommate had gone to this situation where there were three missions. And when he decided to get married, they built him a little rectory. So I had a rectory on the edge of a cotton field a quarter of a mile long. And that was next door to the Church of the Ascension, which had about ninety to a hundred members, and then ten miles away on the highway between Sumter and Columbia there was the Church of the Holy Cross at Stateburg. They say Stateburg missed by one vote being capital of South Carolina, but the committee consisted of only three men, and two of them recommended Columbia! But it was a beautiful church, built in 1850 - of pise de terre, packed mud. There was a house across the street that was pre-Revolutionary, where Cornwallis and General Greene both made headquarters,, and they had these enormously thick walls made of this pise, so they decided to build a church in 1850 of that material, and they modeled it on a chapel in England. And it's so beautiful that I wept when I went in there that this was to be my church. But a lot of those people worked in Sumter. Then out in the woods was a little church, St. Philip's, where my grandfather is buried, with about twenty members. Holy Cross had about seventy-five.

Sweeney: Holy Cross, now . Guerry: That's the one on the highway. Sweeney: And the main one was Ascension.

Guerry: Ascension was, the headquarters. People mostly were farmers. St. Philip's would not have survived if it hadn't been for the Presbyterians. They would alternate services Sunday afternoons. And finally that's been given up because they could all go into Sumter. But the church in Hagood and the church at Holy Cross still survive.

Sweeney: That Ascension is still there?

Guerry: It's still there, and they have a Rector in my old rectory. I don't know where to begin about the work there. My pastoral contacts with Negroes were quite incidental until I tried to be a volunteer chaplain at two Negro prison farms in the area. As a matter of fact, when the summer came and it got hot I lost twenty pounds, and the head of my Vestry, they call him the Senior Warden, came to me and said, "You've got to quit those


farms or you'll be resigning by the pound." And I asked him to take the services. Then he said, "Oh, I couldn't do that. By Saturday night I've lost my religion and I have to come to church and hear you preach, and sometimes your sermons last me a day or two!" - which is a good commentary on how long words last that aren't backed up with expression. But I finally ordered him to go to the prison farm, and when I came back from my mission that afternoon, he met me with a big smile and said, "Why, those men said, 'Captain, please come back'." He said, "I thought they were going to say, 'You ought to be in prison like us' ." But that became wonderful because, instead of my doing the work, these laymen did it, and they would take lots of white people there and the prisoners would put on a show. And when the "Lifetimers Quartet" sang,, the people wept. One of the superintendents was a young man and very good. He never had a break. Nobody ever ran because he would plead, even before the days of parole, he would plead for pardon for men who had killed in self defense. One man, he said, was in there for life for killing in the defense of his own wife. So this was a very revealing thing, to be close to these two prison farms. Then the Negro churches would ask me. Races were about three to one in ratio, white and colored.

Sweeney: Three whites for every black?

Guerry: Three blacks. And my nearest white neighbor was a quarter of a mile away, a farmer. My really nearest neighbors were the blacks. And I must say they seemed very happy because the white people were concerned about them, and they had plenty to eat. And they worked in groups, which meant that they sang while they worked, while they picked cotton out in the fields.

In a way the white and-the colored people, as they were called, were slaves to the system, the tenant system. When there was no work, they lived through the winter by I.O.U.'s which then they had to pay. So in a way the white people were enslaved to the system and the colored people were enslaved to the system, too. And few wanted the blacks to have much education. However, a very fine Negro woman came down from Baltimore, leaving a fine position up there to be county superintendent. And everybody respected her in the County of Sumter. They didn't diversify their crops; I could hardly get a vegetable. I had a windmill of my own which gave me water and electricity, and a little garden, which was usually burnt up in the summer, it was so hot. But we had a men's club at both main churches, and they brought in agents who talked about diversification. But I found out that a part of the slavery of the white farmer came from New York because they told me,


"The local banks won't lend us money except on cotton because they can't borrow money from the big banks except on cotton," -which is not perishable. So every inch of land, it seemed, was planted in cotton. And they had prospered during World War I, but by 1925-1929 the Depression hit them before it hit the rest of the world. And we were trying to get them to cooperate and hold back their cotton, and we did what we could along that line.

But to go back to the Negroes . . . they would ask me to preach in their local churches, which I loved to do, and sometimes I'd go and hear them. And they preached very well. They in tone their sermons; they practically sing it. You think they're just repeating and repeating words, but underneath all that I found some good Gospel and good advice. But once I went to hear a Negro preacher from up North, and he really stirred them up. His message was a foretaste of the later protest movement in the South. One time one of the women asked me would I preach at her church, and I said I'd be glad to. Then a few days later a committee came and said, "Aunt Sarah had no business asking you without the Board. But the Board and the congregation have voted to invite you at such-and-such a time." So I went a little ahead of the time they gave me, and I found out the service had begun. As I approached I could hear the clap ping and the shouting and the "Amens." And the preacher was warming them up for me. When I sat down, he stopped after a while and said, "Brethren, we've got a white preacher here to day. He comes from the white church down there on the cross roads. But you know, when you go by there you hear a little singing, but you don't hear no shouting and you don't hear no clapping. And they ain't got the Spirit like we have." And then he added, "But, brethren, they do say that still waters run deep." Now, how could you have a better introduction? It worked me up so that when the farmers asked their people about my sermon, they said, "He got the Spirit." They said, "How do you know that he had the Spirit?" "When he preached, he clapped his hands."

My greatest experience along this line was at a lumber yard where white and black came to the service under the stars, a beautiful night - a real integrated congregation. And I said, "I want our colored brethren to do the praying and the singing, and I'll do the preaching." And out of the darkness a voice said, "Did you hear what the white preacher say? Well, we is going to pray so hard and sing so good that this here white preacher gotta preach." So that was a high moment in my life, and that may give you a little insight into what the Negroes meant to me and to our community. Never a crime can I remember.


Sweeney: You had a considerable amount of contact with them, more than I would have expected at that time in South Carolina. I would have thought that the lines of black and white were more separated, but I guess out in the countryside especially, there was a great deal of contact.

Guerry: A great deal of contact, great intimacy between the whites and the blacks.

Sweeney: You didn't have much contact with the white cotton mill workers, did you?

Guerry: No.

Sweeney: They'd be more in the cities, the Piedmont area.

Guerry: But you know, outdoors and sunshine and cabbages and collards and one thing and another make a lot of difference. S

Sweeney: Now you returned to the University of the South in 1929 as a member of the faculty and as their chaplain, and you spent ten years there - nine years there. Could you discuss the high lights of those nine years which you spent at Sewanee?

Guerry: Before I do that, let me go back, to one thing that colored my life later. I had a Bible class, and the members asked me why different denominations? And what are they like? In Lent we had a different preacher from every denomination, and they were good. I'd have a hymn and a prayer and I'd introduce the man and I'd say, "I don't want you to stop under fifty minutes. We want really to know about your faith and history." And when they got through I'd be so thrilled I'd say, "I'm proud of my Baptist Church." Well, finally someone said, "How about the Roman Catholic Church?" There were no Roman Catholics out there. And someone said, "I bet you couldn't get one." I said, "We can try." I went to Camden, and I got Father Mackin - loved the man. He said, "Yes, I'll talk about twenty minutes; I'd love to." He talked for over an hour, and he told them that the Church has an earthly body, but it has a soul which is far more inclusive. And we kept up with each other for years. But instead of the bet going through that I couldn't get a Roman Catholic, he talked to a crowded church. And we had an inter denominational picnic every year by one of the mill ponds; they had corn-mill ponds. Somebody would set up a cross, and one man from one of the denominations would preach. So there began an inter-denominational, ecumenical experience on my part.


Now to go back to Sewanee. I was preceded by a delightful man named de Ovies, who had been there only a year and a quarter before he was made dean of a cathedral in Atlanta. He was a fascinating man, and he'd hold them spellbound with his sermons and his talk. Well, then I went into my class I found seventy boys, and I had a young theological graduate who took the other seventy of the freshman class, all required to take Bible. In order to get to know men right here in January in the middle of the term, I would call on men so I could associate the name with somebody. And the very first day I found six of them were absent who had said "Here." Well, there were doors on either side, and they would slip out. But after that they didn't. And I decided, this is too many people to teach because I like some feedback. You can lecture to seventy, but you can't discuss. So I taught, instead of three hours a week as chaplain, I taught six hours and taught thirty-five in each class and so did my assistant. And that made a vast difference.

Another thing I did with those classes that helped a lot: I made it a kind of key class to the whole curriculum, key subject, instead of just a Sunday School class off to one side where everybody passes and makes an "A." So when examination time came I would have an oral exam by teachers from the science department, the department of social studies and economics, English, of course, and history. So in order to pass these oral exams these boys ' would study like everything. I remember one man asking, "What was Joseph's great temptation?" The professor, of course, expected him to say, "Potiphar's wife." The boy answered, "The forgiveness of h,is brothers who had sold him into slavery." Well, that, of course, make me rejoice. Various professors lectured in my classes. I added elective courses in religion.

Of course, in addition to the classes, I had daily chapel, which was required or compulsory. I changed the word "compulsory" to "corporate." I said, "There's no excuse for us to come to chapel because we are compelled. We come to chapel because we are family. We are a corporate group, and we need to get together at least once a day." So all the notices were given in chapel, some student meetings held, visiting speakers talked. We were so cut off from the world that I tried to bring in people from outside like Norman Thomas. He was running for President but he wouldn't talk about politics, but he made a powerful talk.

Sweeney: He didn't talk about politics?

Guerry: No, no, but he talked about humanity. It was a powerful talk. And I had a Baptist layman from Nashville, and many others. And I changed chapel from 9:30 in the morning to twelve, so there wasn't any reason why they had to study for the next class or rush to the next class. All they had to do was go to lunch. Another thing we did was touring in Negro choirs from


the Negro Episcopal colleges, and we'd have all the Negroes in the community come, too - an integrated service. And I'll tell you one other story.

The head of this college was a Mr. Hunt, and he made a fine talk which ended with these words: "Whenever you think about our people, ask yourself, 'What if I'd been born black?'" That's the way he ended. Some of the students got around me afterwards and said, "Wasn't that awful for him to say that before all those colored people?" And I said, "Well, he knew what he was talking about." One of them said, "You mean, he wasn't white?" He had a white beard. I said, "No, he wasn't white, but he was a distinguished man." And he said, "He wasn't white, and you called him Mr. Hunt?" I said, "Yes, what did you want me to call him - George? He's been in important positions in the government."

Sweeney: He was a black man.

Guerry: He was a black man.

Sweeney: He was president of one of the black colleges?

Guerry: One of the black colleges. And this sort of thing helped to bring the white and black communities together without any fanfare or without any great problem.

To have services in chapel every day has its difficulties, and they don't do that any more. They don't have required chapel, but now, instead of having three hundred, they have a thousand students. Four hundred of them are women. And my grand daughter was one of them; she graduated in May and is going to the University of Virginia law school.

Sweeney: So it had three hundred by the 1930's, you said; it had about three hundred students?

Guerry: Yes, during the whole Depression period from '29 to '38. We lived off of tokens, but we never suffered.

Sweeney: How do you mean "tokens"?

Guerry: Instead of money.

Sweeney: You were paid in tokens? Where did you spend them?

Guerry: In the bank and the supply store.

Sweeney: Was the town part of the campus?


Guerry: Right off the campus. And it had its own parish church, but for big occasions, then everybody came up to the chapel. The prep school or military academy boys were drilled up there when the weather was all right. And we had the faculty - I preached with little children playing marbles under the pulpit. One faculty wife always insisted on coming to church even with a baby, and she was so tired she went to sleep. One baby rolled on the floor, so she didn't bring that child any more.

Of course, I went to all the sports, all the athletic events, and I went to the fraternities, which were club houses and not dormitories. The students at Sewanee had two fraternities, the' fraternity life of a dormitory, where everybody was mixed, and the fraternity life of a club. And when I found a boy in trouble, the main thing I could do was to go to a fraternity, and they would look after that boy and see that he studied or help me solve his problems. And these fraternities gave all of their bids through me, so a boy could tell me what fraternity he preferred.

You can see this is a rather intimate life. Every faculty member stayed home Sunday night for the boys to visit, and I would go into a dormitory and visit a boy and, first thing you know, others would drift in, and we'd have a bull session.

Sweeney: Were the students mainly, well, pretty poor in those days?

Guerry: Well, in the Depression. And the university had a hard time getting out of it. They made my brother president in 1938. He had great difficulty bringing the university through the depression and then the War. He organized the churches and the alumni into annual givers and drew on individual donors who were very generous, and on foundations. He brought the ROTC to the campus.

Sweeney: Did many of the boys have problems paying their tuition?

Guerry: Yes, indeed. We lost a number of students in 1929-31.

Sweeney: You lived right on the campus,?

Guerry: I lived on the campus.

Sweeney: So students could always seek you out if they needed to?

Guerry: Oh, yes . . . When we had visiting speakers, students would come to my home for discussion. One of the best was a Rabbi. After telling of the suffering of his people, he said, "Christ was crucified afresh." A student made the comment: "He is a better Christian than I've ever been."


Sweeney: Now, why did you choose to leave there and accept the call to St. Paul's in Norfolk in 1938?

Guerry: The trigger was my brother's election as president, because I knew that I would not stay if he was there - too much family. And the faculty started telling me when they suspected that he was being elected, they started telling me what to tell him. I said, "No." I think I've always had a pastoral feeling, so I was ready to go as soon as I knew that he was being elected. They sent two men from here, Mr. Alvah Martin and Mr. Walter Whichard. They never told me they were in the chapel. They never even spoke to me until I got the call to St. Paul's.

Sweeney: They didn't interview you or anything?

Guerry: No, they just came to my chapel.

Sweeney: How did they know about you?

Guerry: Well, they knew some of the students, and they talked to them and other people, but they didn't tell me they were there. But they originally got my name from Bishop Beverley D. Tucker, who had taught me at the Seminary before he became Bishop of Ohio. And his older brother, Bishop Henry St. George Tucker, had been Bishop in Japan and come back to this country, and he taught me, too, for a while before he was made Bishop of Virginia.

Here were two men who had grown up in St. Paul's. Their father had been Rector there twenty-four years before he became the Bishop of Southern Virginia - Bishop Tucker. He had been rector from 1882 to 1906.

Sweeney: And then they sent the recommendation down to Norfolk?

Guerry: Yes.

Sweeney: And the two men went up to see you?

Guerry: That's right.

Sweeney: But they didn't even speak with you.

Guerry: Didn't even speak with me. Nowadays they go into computers and interviews and who knows what all.

Sweeney: And so you received a letter, then, asking you to come to Norfolk?


Guerry: Yes. So I came and had a visit with them and explained my situation where, if my brother was elected, I could leave Sewanee if they could wait for me. If he was not, I would hate to desert a new man just at the critical time of his coming in. But one thing I'd like to say about Sewanee - I did two pieces of writing that had a great effect on my life. One was a paper that I gave to the faculty, perhaps the first of its kind, called "Afro-Americans" - not hyphenated "Afro- Americans," but "Afro-Americans." A Russian refugee was our professor of sociology, and he suggested some books on the history of our black people and the problems connected with it that I should study. As a result I wrote this paper for the faculty, and that led me to Tuskegee and to Duke and Chapel Hill and to the Interracial Commission in Atlanta.

Sweeney: You gave the paper at those places also, is that right; is that what you mean?

Guerry: I gave it some places; others I merely took part in conferences. I had the pleasure of conferring with Dr. Moton at Tuskegee, and had a short visit with George Washington Carver. I asked him, by the way, had he taught some men to succeed him. And he said, "Can the poet teach poetry?" And they explained to me that he worked by inspiration. And you can teach parsing and rhythm and rhyme, but you can't teach a poet to be a poet unless he's inspired. So it is with inspired chemistry. I thought that was a great saying of his.

Sweeney: So, as it turned out, your brother was elected?

Guerry: Yes. The other thing I wrote at Sewanee, which was published, was "Men Who Made Sewanee," because I found students didn't know the founders very well, and the old history book was out of print. So I gave talks, an anecdotal kind of history, a sketch of each of eight men. And the editor of the Sewanee Review, which is the oldest continuous college review in the South, maybe in America, said that he would publish four of those articles in his Review and I could use the type for the book.

Sweeney: Very good.

Guerry: And in the summer we had summer conferences on Christian education, and I assisted directing and then directing. And hundreds of people from parishes from all over the South would come. Sewanee was a kind of Mecca of the Southern Church.

Sweeney: So you came, then, to St. Paul's in 1938. I was wondering if you could describe the situation at St. Paul's. Just what kind of church did you find when you arrived in terms of congregation and the physical condition of the church building and so forth?


Guerry: There were about 260 communicants, mainly people, of course, who had been confirmed, not counting children and passing strangers. But ever since the '80's, the late 1880's, it had been predicted that the church would eventually have to close because people began to move to Ghent and other places. But Bishop Tucker kept it alive for 24 years. He was followed by Dr. Owens, who appealed greatly to men. He was there only about six or seven years, but he started a renovation of the church, which had been - well, not very pretty, with low pews and everything. They had the church renovated to the colonial style with the high pulpit. But he did put in an altar, which it didn't use to have in early days. And then he was followed by Dr. Covington, who came from Sumter, South Carolina. And he was here twenty years. His daughters are still here. And he'd been my teacher. So that made a good contact. And right before me was a man who was at the Seminary with me named Dr. Vincent Franks. He was a great preacher. He worked hard at his preaching. And one of the parishioners made it possible for him to go on radio every Sunday, which was unique in those days. He was a pioneer. So the church was very well filled whenever Dr. Franks preached.

After three and a half years he went to Philadelphia. But when I came there was a very small Sunday school and not much organization. The auxiliaries, the circles, the Sunday school all needed building up. I had plenty to do for twenty years.

Sweeney: How was the church financially? Was it holding its own or was it having some financial problems?

Guerry: Everybody was in 1938. But compared to what I was getting at Sewanee, it sounded like a big salary - $4500, out of which I was to rent my rectory because they had sold the old rectory.

Sweeney: Where was that rectory? That's been torn down now . .

Guerry: No, it's still standing on the corner of Claremont and Westover, but it's a big old building that needed renovation, needed repairs, needed to be refurbished. So the Bishop said, "Sell it, and let the next man rent a rectory." So that's what they did.

(End of Tape)

Guerry Interview Continues:
August 5, 1980
August 12, 1980

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