Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Aaronsburg Story: Grassroots Gathering for Tolerance in 1949

I inherited many books from my grandfather Lynne O. Ramer, including The Aaronsburg Story by Arthur H. Lewis.

The book is yellowed and the slipcover torn and repaired with Scotch tape. It was given to him by Maude Shannon Ramer in remembrance of her cousin Jim Shannon whose photo appears on the back of the slipcover. Lynne sent it to all his friends to read.

Maude Shannon Ramer was Lynne's cousin, 75 years old in 1955 when she gifted the book. She was the widow of Lynne's second cousin Harry Webster Ramer and blood cousin of  the Rev. James Shannon.

The book is dedicated "To the memory of James S. Shannon without whose understanding, intelligence, and love of mankind there would be no Aaronsburg Story."

In 1949 the small town of 321 inhabitants hosted a meeting dedicated to tolerance and universal brotherhood. 40,000 people came.
The village of Aaronsburg was established in 1786 by Aaron Levy, a Jew who believed in freedom of religion. He donated the land on which Salem Lutheran Church was built. Levy never lived in the village, which was established near the center of Pennsylvania and which Levy hoped would become the state capital. Levy owned most of central Pennsylvania and made his wealth in trading with the Native Americans and in land speculation.
Rev. Jim Shannon
Arthur Lewis met Jim Shannon and became interested in how Aaron Levy, a Jew, came to donate land for the church. Shannon showed Lewis the pewter communion set Levy had donated, inscribed in German, "This gift to the German Congregations in Aaronsburg from Aaron Levy." The pewter was marked "William Will--Philadelphia."

"It wouldn't do to have a bigot," Lewis was told.

Although no Jew or black had ever lived in the village, they held to their heritage of tolerance.
Lewis learned that Rev. Shannon was hired in 1942 when Salem put out a call for a pastor who would uphold the village tradition of liberalism and tolerance. "It wouldn't do to have a bigot," Lewis was told. When Shannon arrived in town the Ku Klux Klan invited him to join. Shannon said he would give an answer that Sunday: when Reverend mounted the pulpit he had with him a friend and fellow pastor, who was African American.

Research by Dr. Rosenbach of Philadelphia revealed that Aaron Levy's family was Polish or Russian before moving to Amsterdam near the end of the 17th c. Aaron was born there in 1742 and at eighteen he came to America, where he worked for relatives in Lancaster and Philadelphia.

The proverbial story was that when Aaron was twenty-six or so he was walking to synagogue when he passed the Chew mansion on Third Street. Aa girl was scrubbing the mansion steps in tears. When he asked her what was wrong she did not respond until Levy addressed her in Yiddish. She was a Jewish bonded servant and cried because she had to scrub the steps every day, even on the Sabbath. Levy bought out her bond and married her.
Arthur Lewis
Lewis suggested to Shannon that Aaronsburg hold a pageant and began seeking support and raising money. Shannon believed it was an opportunity to prove that democracy was strong, and that rural people were not bigots and wanted the world to know it. A Liberal was considered a person who respected differences in religion and political opinion within the framework of the Constitution.

Speakers were drawn from across the religious and ethnic spectrum. Suggestions included Ralph Bunche because of his work in Palestine, Justice Felix Frankfurter, and Dr. Tobias, Chairman of the board of the NAACP and previous head of a foundation to improve US-African relations. Dr. Tobias agreed because "Aaronsburg is a graphic demonstration of something in which I have always had faith--that rural, white, Protestant America is not the last stronghold of bigotry but in reality an untapped source of democratic power."

"...something in which I have always had faith--that rural, white, Protestant America is not the last stronghold of bigotry but in reality an untapped source of democratic power." Dr Channing Tobias

Additional speakers from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Anti-Defamation League, were added, along with movie star Cornell Wilde. It was decided they needed a voice from the Far East and Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan of the United Nations agreed to speak. "It is a good omen for the world when a village as tiny as yours girds its loins to do battle to prove the equality of all men, even the skin of some as dark as mine. I think, too, that your community's willingness to pay homage to a man of a faith different from its own is good, and that also appeals to me. Like your Bible, our Koran says, 'Let him who wishes, believe, and let him who so choose, deny!"

"It is a good omen for the world when a village as tiny as yours girds its loins to do battle to prove the equality of all men, even the skin of some as dark as mine." Sir Muhammad Zafrulla Khan.

Three panels were set up address The Handling of Prejudiced People, Religious Intolerance in American Society, and Assurance of Rights to Minority Groups.

The book goes on to tell how a surprising 40,000 people came to Aaronsburg, filling each church to overflow, emptying the restaurants of food. It was a miracle.
Note from Justice Felix Frankfurter to Lynne O, Ramer

Justice Frankfurter warned, "Where the entire people do not take a continuous and considered part in public life there can be no democracy in any meaningful sense of that term, for democracy is always a beckoning goal, not a safe harbor." He went on, "All the devices of political machinery, parties and platforms and votes, are merely instruments for enabling men to live together under conditions that bring forth the maximum gits of each for the fullest enjoyment of all." And "Freedom is an unremitting endeavor, never a final achievement."

 "Freedom is an unremitting endeavor, never a final achievement." Justice Frankfurter

Dr. Bunche spoke asking, "Who can doubt that there is anything as sorely needed in the dangerous world of today as a universal recognition of a fraternal bond of kinship among peoples, the realization of a sense of brotherhood among all men, of human understanding, of a broad spirit of tolerance toward those whose races, creeds, cultures, and ideologies may differ from one's own?"

Dr. Dan Poling warned, "We cannot keep another down without staying with him. We cannot fail to share without losing our own better part. This road of intolerance leads only to disaster. Those who take it may cry peace, peace, but for them and their system...there is and there can be no peace. We shall not finally disarm the world until we rise above intolerance. We shall not find the cure for war until Aaron Levy's creed of brotherhood becomes the law by which we earn our bread, administer our government, and each, according to his own conscience, worships God."

"We cannot keep another down without staying with him. We cannot fail to share without losing our own better part." Dr. Poling

And Major-General Donovan said "The measure of a man's loyalty and patriotism is not judged by the length of his ancestry but by the quality of his mind and the depth of his courage. The great danger in our country is tat hatred and intolerance can be swords turned against out people."

Dr. Channing Tobias urged "It would be a great thing for a bewildered and pessimistic world if the leaders of the great religious denominations could sit around a common table--Jews, Mohammedans, Hindus, Buddhists, all divisions of Christians--for the sole purpose of calling attention to the broad principles upon which is it possible to unite in the interest of bringing understanding and peace to mankind."

Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein declared, "I am convinced that in troubled times like these it is our sacred duty not only to talk brotherhood but to act brotherhood...with a consecrated determination to treat our fellowmen on the basis of their merits and not on the basis of their antecedents, to live with them as free men on the basis of equality and democracy."

Sir Muhammad explained that "God is not a tribal or national deity, nor are His Benevolence and Providence confined to the followers of any particular religion or creed. ..You should therefore strive to establish conditions in which a man would be free to believe in whatever he chooses to believe in for the sake of God alone."

And Governor Duff of Pennsylvania declared that  October 23 would be Aaronsburg Brotherhood Day.

The book continues; in 1951 Lewis ran into Dr. Bunche and Dr. Poling in New York City's Pennsylvania Station. They lunched together, fondly recalling the day, the crowd, and the spirit of the day. Dr. Bunche suggested repeating the program.

They decided to ask advise from others about what to do next. A list of 181 important American leaders was complied. and letters telling about Aaronsburgh and asking for ideas were sent. and then Lewis went on the road to interview the leaders.

The letters read, "The present world situation is a challenge to every one of us. There is today widespread unrest among nations; there is a rising tide of nationalism among those we used to regard as benighted peoples. The past twenty years have seen the resurgence of bigotry, persecution, and intolerance in the world...It seems to me that there are wide areas of agreement from which men of various races and creeds can embark on a program of mutual trust and action not only for the benefit of America but also for the better understanding of world problems."

Marian Anderson in her interview suggested "there's nothing in the whole world that brings people closer together than singing together...Do this someday and let me sing with them."

Dr. Milton Eisenhower of Pennsylvania State University states "Segregation is one problem I don't have at State College, there is cooperation everywhere." He offered the college to house visitors to the next assembly.

Father LaFarge agreed to help with programming and planning, explaining that his grandfather was a white slave for year under Henri Christophe, ruler of Haiti.

Lewis met with Lillian Smith and Mr. Baruch and Professor Albert Einstein who, hearing the story of Aaronsburg, agreed it "must become a meeting place for all men of good intent. Norman Cousins, Ronald Reagan, and Edward Murrow were interviewed.

He meet Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations. "The world doesn't have much time left," she told Lewis. "We need every bit of illumination we can get to bring the light to the darkness that is engulfing all of us."

On June 19-21, 1953 the second assembly met. The four sessions focused on How to Live Above Your Prejudices in six areas--government, school, home, work, recreation, and religion. Each panel had a moderator, one Friend and One Neighbor. "There would be no holds barred, and any question within the range of each panel could be asked and answered...There would be no "talking down.'"

Although Lewis intended to evolve the Aaronsburg Story to panels across America it never happened. But he did hear stories from people whose lives were changed by the experience, A man who had been anti-union changed his mind after sitting with a man from the Steel Workers Union. Aaronsburg  built a new state of the art school. Local citizens who had been against building a new school changed their attitudes after hearing from the country's leaders in education.

Lewis hoped to begin the Aaronsburg National Assemblies held in 350 communities on one day. The book was published in 1951. On October 23, 1968 the Center Daily Times published an article, "Lesson Wasn't Caught." It read, "Nineteen years ago today the world heard about Aaronsburg. More than 30,000 people gathered in the tiny East Penns Valley community for a day long study of religious understanding. Peoples of all faiths participated in discussion programs, church services, and historical pageant which told the story of Aaronsburg and America. The Aaronsburg ideal, apparently, was a decade and more ahead of the nation. If the lessons taught there had been learned, much of today's unrest would have been unnecessary."


On July 20, 1961 in Ben Meyer's column We Notice That appeared in Lynne's hometown newspaper, The Lewiston Sentinel. Lynne wrote,

Jim Shannon Story
Dear Ben: Remember the old saying, "Thought conceived, but never penned--perish unheard." Well, I just gotta tell you about some correspondence that occurred recently.

It started in the long ago, back in 1949, when a story was born across the Seven Mountains. 'Twas called "The Aaronsburg Story," sparked by a five-church-circuit country parson, Rev. James S. Shannon.

It was an attempt, an experiment, to break down the barriers--that separate groups and peoples from "agreeing on essentials." We have such terrible barriers today--locally, nationally, and internationally, such as Jim Shannon probably never dreamt of." (Incidentally Jim's grand-pop established St. Paul's Lutheran in Milroy.)

This book should be read by every American and certain by every honest-hearted Pennsylvanian. Long time ago Mrs. Harry W. (Maude) Ramer sent me a copy of it. It's on the go all the time, being read by my friends. Maude and Jim Shannon were blood cousins. Maude 'n' Harry will be remembered in the Burnham era, 1915-19.

Last September, 1960, Old Salem Church was rebuilt and rededicated on the ground where those two "Aaronsburg conference" were held. Maude just sent me colored snapshots of the exterior and interior of the church and of the marker made simply and of wood, that commemorates the conferences.
Maude Shannon Ramer's photographs of the new Salem Lutheran Church
Well, I thought those pictures were so good I promptly sent them to Dr. Ralph C. Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, to look at. He returned them with a gracious reply and told me to relay to Maude his concern for her health, which hasn't been too good.

Now Dr. Bunche was acquainted with Jim Shannon and was a leading attender at the pageant in 1949 and at the later, or second, Aaronsburg Conference. All the world knows Dr. Bunche and his concern for education, racial opportunity, and for the future and present of the new African nations.

As to friendship of nations, some short-minded people have been raising a fuss about 4,000 Canadians that work in Detroit--pressmen, steel men, auto workers, etc. John Manning, Free Press editor, says the best printers he ever knew were from across the Detroit River, from Windsor, Can. Many editorials have been written against closing the tunnel and Ambassador Bridge to these workers. Prime Minister Diefenbaker says he was assured no U. S. Official has such intention's. As regards Canada, its high time we take stock of who our friends are. And try to keep 'em, not ruffle their feathers with such ill-timed proposals.

Lynne O. Ramer

At Rev. Shannon's funeral the eulogy was given by Lester J. Waldman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, saying, "A few men in each age have a deep conviction that there are some things everlastingly right and some things that are everlastingly wrong. Jim Shannon was a fighter for the things that are everlastingly right."

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