Strategic Alliance: John Hartwell Cook, O. O. Howard, and the Postwar Fight for Equality at First Congregational Church

Strategic Alliance: John Hartwell Cook, O. O. Howard, and the Postwar Fight for Equality at First Congregational Church

In February 1867, John Hartwell Cook, a freedman from Virginia and graduate of Oberlin College, arrived in Washington, DC, with his wife, Isabel “Belle” Lewis, to take up a new position with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. Prior to his arrival, he had spent roughly two years teaching among freedpeople under the auspices of the Bureau in Louisville, Kentucky. At his new post in the capital, Cook quickly caught the attention of Bureau Commissioner Oliver Otis Howard,  who promoted him to the office of chief clerkship, a position that involved the management of Howard’s official correspondence and even his personal finances. Out of this working relationship, a close friendship developed, one that proved immensely important in late 1867 when Cook initiated a struggle for racial equality at Washington’s First Congregational Church.[1]

Portrait of O. O. Howard
Portrait of Oliver Otis Howard,

The establishment of First Congregational, on the corner of Tenth and G Streets, was part of a larger transformation of Washington during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Upon Abraham Lincoln’s election and the subsequent secession of the Confederate states, southern congressmen had fled the district. Their departure, along with an influx of Republican-aligned officials, marked a shift in the capital from a pro-slavery to pro-Union stance. During the war, the capital experienced further transformation due to the arrival of thousands of refugees and escaping slaves from neighboring Maryland and Virginia. In 1865, several men with ties to Congregational churches in New England decided the time was right for their staunchly anti-slavery denomination to plant a church in the nation’s principle city, a place they had previously never been welcome. The small assembly, which initially met in the hall of the House of Representatives, attracted the attention of Howard. Not only did Howard have personal ties to Congregationalism, but as Bureau commissioner, he wanted to attend a church that embraced progressive racial views. Ultimately, Howard and his wife, Elizabeth, along with their friends, John and Myrtilla Alvord, became members. Howard later wrote, “Being engaged in a struggle for what I have called the manhood of the black man . . . I naturally carried the same efforts with me into the church, with which I was connected.”[2]

Several months after the Howards joined, Baltimore’s Rev. Edwin Johnson delivered the keynote address at the church’s groundbreaking ceremony. He emphasized that this new church, founded on the premise of liberty, fraternity, and equality, intended to serve as an example to the nation. Yet neither Johnson nor Howard could have envisioned how quickly the church would find itself at the center of a historic battle for racial equality that reverberated across the country. The crisis that emerged exposed the hypocrisy of the majority of white congregants, including the church’s first minister, Charles B. Boynton, who despite professions of belief in racial equality, anticipated and preferred a primarily white congregation.[3]

In October 1867 when John Hartwell Cook presented himself for membership at First Congregational, he set off a chain of events that culminated in a church split and the resignation of Rev. Boynton. Shortly after interviewing Cook, Rev. Boynton preached a sermon targeting Cook and other educated African Americans by stating that they could best serve their race in “institutions of their own.” Boynton’s sermon went viral as newspapers across the country noted the obvious discrepancy between the church’s stated belief in equality and the minister’s call for racial separation. A dismayed Cook turned to Howard for support, imploring his friend on behalf of himself and other Black congregants: “Because of your long and tiring and consistent course as the practical Christian advocate of the rights of all humanity and especially the negro may we not still hope and expect much from you . . . ?” Cook observed that in this new era, there “is a grand opportunity to begin right . . . . Here shall we have a Church composed of members whose lives will be molded by their religion and not their religion by their lives.” He believed the church’s refusal to accept him and other Black people as equals would have repercussions across the country as “the public mind gladly seizes anything looking towards a sanction of the old state of things.”[4]

Howard, appalled and deeply grieved by the situation, agreed. In the face of increased public scrutiny and with disregard for any political ramifications, Howard initiated and led the minority resistance to Rev. Boynton over the next seventeen months. His efforts included drafting and disseminating a public protest against the pastor’s position signed by fifty other members, employing the voice of the Congregational Church, the Congregationalist and Boston Recorder, to publicize his views, and ultimately forcing both an ex parte council and general church council, in November 1868 and January 1869 respectively, to settle the matter. Howard’s actions drew the ire of Rev. Boynton’s son, Henry, a local correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette, who used the paper to support his father’s position, an effort that generated headlines as far away as Vermont, Louisiana, and California. A year and a half later, however, Rev. Boynton and his supporters admitted defeat and left the church while Cook and more than thirty other African Americans became members, integrating this traditionally white space as equals and victors over the church’s segregationist wing.[5]

The episode at First Congregational reveals how Black activists made strategic use of alliances to facilitate change during Reconstruction. Whites’ widespread fear of societal upheaval in a postslavery world guaranteed that such efforts would meet organized resistance that was both widely publicized and increasingly politicized. Despite facing perhaps the most incendiary accusations possible during the period—that of supporting amalgamation and social equality—Cook and Howard succeeded. Not only did Cook achieve membership in First Congregational, his fight resulted in the broader Congregational Church publicly affirming racial equality and denouncing racial separation. In addition, Cook provided Commissioner Howard with a platform to align himself with freedpeople in direct contrast to the virulent racist President Andrew Johnson who hamstrung the Bureau throughout its most critical years. The victory sheds light on an underappreciated aspect of Reconstruction, namely the tenacious and creative ways African Americans pushed influential white allies to directly challenge white supremacy in predominantly white institutions.

[1] Records of the field offices for the state of Kentucky, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), Monthly school reports, Apr.-June 1866, Sept. 1866-Nov. 1868, M1904 roll 119; “John H. Cook Esq.,” and “John H. Cook,” Alumni Records of Oberlin College for Quinquennial Reunion in 1875, Oberlin College Archives.

[2] Oliver Otis Howard, Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, 2 vols. (New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1907), 1:119, 2:425-26; Walter L. Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” in Fiftieth Anniversary of the Founding of the First Congregational Church (Washington, 1915), 92-93.

[3] A. T. DeGroot and General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches of the United States, “Records: Year Book, 1854-1960,” Quarterly Newsletter, January 1867.

[4] Charles Brandon Boynton, “The duty which the colored people owe to themselves: a sermon delivered at Metzerott Hall, Washington, D.C.” [Washington, D.C.: Printed at the Office of the Great Republic, 1867], Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection, Library of Congress,; John H. Cook to Oliver Otis Howard, December 1, 1867, Oliver Otis Howard Papers, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine. John W. Alvord, also a friend of Cook’s, was a Sunday School teacher at First Congregational and fellow Oberlinite who served in the Freedmen’s Bureau as general superintendent of schools. Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” 93; Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War, 2 vols. (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1943) 2:913.

[5] Howard, Autobiography, 2:432-35; Everett O. Alldredge, Centennial History of First Congregational United Church of Christ, Washington, D.C., 1865–1965 (Baltimore: Port City Press, 1965), 25-27; Clift, “History of the First Congregational Church,” 95-96; “Proceeding of an Ex Parte Council Held at the First Congregational Church November 1, 1868,” O. O. Howard Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington DC; “The Boynton and Howard Unpleasantness,” New Orleans Crescent Sun, November 29, 1868; “A Christian Quarrel,” BurlingtonTimes (Burlington, Vermont), December 5, 1868; “Try It,” San Francisco Examiner, February 8, 1869.

Peter Porsche

Peter Porsche is a Ph.D. Candidate at Texas Christian University.

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