Monday, June 2, 2008

Renewed plea for personal histories and Uncle Dan's life story

Mike and I were talking on the phone and he asked me to reiterate how much we would like to get family stories for the history book. You'll be sorry when you see how cool it is, if you're not a part of it!

Of course, some, like me may have totally boring stories that no one wants to hear, but then again, I don't have children who will one day be interested in reading about my early life. I can't see any of my cats really giving a rat's behind. :)

So to get people motivated, with only a month to go, here is the story that Uncle Dan wrote when he moved to his new church to introduce himself to the congregation. He lived through the Dust Bowl, the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the Sixties, and so forth. I remember Disco and the Challenger exploding. I hope the times I live through are never as trying as these...


From the Dust Bowl to Paradise

I was born on April 23, 1933, on a small ranch 50 miles south of Dodge City, Kansas. I was the 7th child born to Paul and Florence Bard Harden. I was the 6th son. It was the worst of times. My parents had tried to limit the number of children they had, but nothing worked. My mother had even turned to religion for help so that when I was born she said, “Lord, I have enough to raise, this one belongs to you.”

As you know, in 1933, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. My parents were fortunate in some ways because we lived on a farm. We had chickens, pigs, milk cows, a house to live in and plenty of land to roam. There was no market for crops but my dad could grow potatoes and watermelons.

Besides the depression, there was another reason why it was called the worst of times. We lived in what was called the “Dust Bowl”. I knew I had grown up in a deprived area of the country, but I never really knew how bad it was until I read a book which hit the shelves in 2006, The Worst Hard Times. The author, Timothy Egan, did not grow up in the Dust Bowl, but he has done extensive research and found that while the Great Depression was Hard Times, those who lived in the Dust Bowl experienced the “worst” of the Hard Times.

The dust storms began in 1931. Though scientists knew that land west of the 100th parallel should not be farmed, the government had opened up the Oklahoma panhandle (what we called “No Man’s Land”) to homesteading after Oklahoma had become a State. Southeastern Colorado had also been opened up to homesteading. The land was flat and farmers broke out buffalo grass that had endured for thousands of years. Buffalo grass is a short grass with deep roots. It is drought resistant. In dry years, the grass survived and held the land in place. Buffalo grass is rich in nitrogen and had nourished buffalo, and now cattle.

The land was perfect for plowing up. It is flat and treeless and the gasoline tractor had just come on the market. With the development of the one-way plough, the homesteader was able to put all of his land into cultivation. Egan explains that during World War I, there was a ready market for wheat. Wheat had been introduced to Kansas by Russian Mennonite immigrants in the 1880’s. With high prices for wheat, the farmer was motivated to plough up everything in sight.

When the drought of the 1930’s hit, no appreciable rain fell in the area for 7 years. The dust storms began in 1931. No crops were grown...nothing could grow. The wind began to blow the dust. The dust drifted like snow, covering roads and fence posts. The worst dust storm came on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1935. I was 2 years old. The day had started out beautifully. By noon a dark cloud emerged over the northwest and gradually swept south across the plains. The rolling dust was propelled by the wind and static electricity. The cloud extended from the Rocky Mountains, east across Kansas and south through Oklahoma and Texas.

Roosevelt became President in 1933. As most Americans know, he immediately devised plans for putting men back to work with the WPA. But for us living in the Dust Bowl, Roosevelt is best known for his conservation measures. When the dust moved east to the Atlantic Ocean and darkened the skies over Washington, DC, Congress willingly voted for the measures that Roosevelt proposed. When farmers were desperate, he offered them $5 an acre to buy the land back. This program was particularly popular in Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle and Baca County in Colorado and the southwestern counties of Kansas.

Other conservation measures were crop rotation, in which farmers were paid not to plant their land, planting tree strips, and contour plowing, and some progress was made. On July 11, 1938, Roosevelt made his first and only trip to the Dust Bowl. He scheduled a train stop in Amarillo, Texas. Thousands of people gathered from all around the area. Just before the train arrived, a big black cloud emerged over the western horizon. The officials feared that the President was going to be greeted by another duster. As he stood to speak, thunder roared and it began to rain. Nobody left, they all stood out in the first significant rain that had fallen in 7 years. It was the end of the drought. That fall, the German forces rolled across Poland and World War II began. The Depression was over.

In the 1940’s there was ample rainfall and a ready market with good prices for wheat. Happy days were here again.

I graduated from high school in 1951 and matriculated at Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana, that fall. It was a culture shock. I had grown up in a dry and desolate land. My high school had 120 students. The biggest town within a hundred miles was Dodge City, at that time 5,000 souls. I loved college, it was a new world. I began a metamorphosis. Anderson was a small Church of God college, but it was the primary training center of our church. Thus, we had students from every State and many foreign students. The Church of God was very mission-minded so that we had students from Japan, India and Africa, where we had major missions.

Like the rain falling on the dry lands of the Dust Bowl, education and culture began falling on my deprived soul. As I have stated, I was nurtured in faith -- my mother had dedicated me to God. As I graduated from college in 1955, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. A new movie and book were sweeping the country, "A Man Called Peter." I saw that movie 6 times in the summer of 1955. That fall I entered Seminary. The die was cast, I would be a minister.

I met my wife the next year at Anderson. Myrna Lee Durham was a bright and attractive young woman from the big city of Tampa, Florida. We were married in Tampa in 1956….and we just celebrated 50 years of marriage.

I finished Seminary in 1958. That fall I was recommended to a small mission church in El Dorado Arkansas. Growing up, I had had a low opinion of Arkansas. I suppose most people thought of Arkansas as a backward state. We moved to Arkansas at the worst of times. Orville Faubus was governor and he had closed the schools in Little Rock to prevent integration. President Eisenhower had mobilized the National Reserves and sent them to Little Rock. The racial situation was explosive.

After we moved to El Dorado, it was apparent that I would have to supplement our income. I did some substitute teaching in the high school, where I had Donna Axumn as a student. She became Miss America in 1961. Lee and I learned rather quickly that Arkansas was perhaps the “best kept secret” in the country. It was beautiful and filled with lakes and trees and the Arkansas delta was some of the richest agricultural land in America.

El Dorado had been an oil boom town in the 1920s. There was tremendous wealth in the community. It was a city of 25,000 and the home of Murphy Oil. They have significant oil reserves in Venezuela, the Gulf of Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

We opened a bookstore in 1960. We specialized in religious books and Bibles, but served as a general bookstore for the area. That bookstore provided an entry into the cultural life of El Dorado. We were accepted by the elite, we were invited into the homes of power brokers. It was in the home of Charlie Murphy that my wife and I first met our governor, a young man named Bill Clinton.

Sheila Anthony worked for us in the bookstore. Her husband, Beryl, would become a Congressman. He served as the representative from our area until the Reagan revolution turned Arkansas into a blue state. Sheila had a brother, Vincent Foster, who went with Bill Clinton to Washington. He later committed suicide. They were all friends from Hope. The Republicans tried to point the finger at the Clintons for Vince’s death, but I can tell you that the Foster family never believed that the Clintons were to blame.

By 1967, the El Dorado schools were integrated. Our daughter, Ashlee, was in the first grade and was assigned to the first African American teacher to teach in the schools of El Dorado. Tension was great. I remember the first day of school. Lee took Ashlee to school. Amanda Milner, the teacher, introduced herself and asked for volunteers for homeroom mothers. Silence prevailed. Though we lived in the silk stocking district, none of the socialites would volunteer. Lee broke the spell when she volunteered.

In 1967, Lee became the host for the 6:00AM program in TV, channel 10: Good Morning, ArkLaMiss. The station covered southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana, and western Mississippi.

In 1968 the first African American visited our church, at my invitation. I will never forget the occasion. We were having a revival. On Monday night a lady by the name of Isabel Nunn came to the service. Several of the church members were sympathetic to the KKK and Sam McDuffie had attended several of their meetings. He told his wife that the first time a “N” came into the church, he would walk out. When Isabel came in, he turned to his wife and asked, “Is that a “N”?” Reba, his wife was quick witted and Isabel was light colored. So Reba said, “Maybe she’s Mexican.” In El Dorado, you could get by if you were Mexican at that time. The next night, Isabel brought her cousin, Sylvia McDaniel, to the service. Sylvia was much darker and there was no doubt that she was African American. Sam did not walk out, but he never returned to church. I visited with him and tried to reason with him. In later years, he turned violent and shot a Deputy Sheriff. I was more successful with my other members. No one else left the church over integration. Isabel and Sylvia became members of our congregation.

In 1969, we conducted a Building Fund Campaign. We held the dinner in the best restaurant in town, the Oak Tree. We seated the African Americans at the front table and we had the newspaper put the picture of the dinner in the paper. I stated from the beginning that the church we were building would be for all people. It is God’s church….if you are not accepting of all people, then do not give. We moved into a beautiful new church in 1970.

I was then chairman of the Arkansas Assembly of the Church of God. We had decided to invite an African American as the speaker for the Annual Assembly. It was customary that the state assembly be held in either Little Rock or Hot Springs. All the churches in central Arkansas refused to host the Assembly. All the pastors said, “If we host a black man, the community will burn our churches down.” I replied to them that they were invited to El Dorado. I was Chairman of the State Assembly and I would not allow them to dis-invite, or cancel, a black speaker.

We were fortunate to have the Reverend Dr. Samuel Hinds as speaker. Sam was a pastor in Washington, DC. Actually he was raised in Jamaica and held degrees from Oxford University. He was, without a doubt, one of the best preachers I have ever heard. Lee had Dr. Hinds on her TV program. This was announced all over the Ark La Miss area. People called to ask, “Is that a black man?” No one had ever heard an Oxford educated black man with a British accent speak before. We had large crowds at the sessions. For the first time ever, every black Church of God pastor in Arkansas attended the Assembly.

The next month, Lee received a phone call threatening to burn a cross in our front yard. I went out one morning to find that the KKK had nailed a poster to the telephone pole in front of our house. It announced a meeting to be held soon. I tore it down. I was so incensed that I put my 7- year-old son in the car and we drove down the street and tore every KKK poster of all the telephone poles I could find.

That year, one of the community leaders came and asked me what I thought about starting a private Christian academy. One of the churches in the community had offered their facilities if such an institute was founded. I said no. I ran for PTA president of our school and won. I proceeded to raise money to air condition our school. My platform was: I believe in free public education and I want to make our school a model school. We raised $28,000 to place air conditioners in every room. We had no candy or bake sales, I asked for money. I challenged people to support the school. To this day, there is not a private school in that community and the public schools are good. I like to feel that I made a difference.

In 1981 Lee and I discussed our future. I had been pastor at El Dorado Church of God for 23 years. There was no question of our leadership... We could have spent our lives in that community, but I felt that greater challenges lay ahead.

Roscoe Snowden, Director of Church Service in the Church of God was asked to recommend someone for the Kendall Church in Miami. The church had contacted dozens of ministers, but none were willing to come to Miami. The Mariel boat lift had devastated the city. American whites were fleeing the Miami for the suburbs. The former pastor told me that in 1979, 65 families had moved from the Kendall church to central and northern Florida. The church was struggling to survive.

We became pastors at Kendall in October 1981. In August, the cover of Time magazine read “Paradise Lost.” The state ministers never had an installation service for me. Jim Royster, our Sunday School superintendent said to me that fall, “I don’t know how much longer we can survive. But we’re going to keep going as long as we can.” I am glad he had not told me that when I interviewed for the position.

I grew up in the worst of times. I had pastored in Arkansas during the racial revolution of the ‘60s. I saw social turmoil as an opportunity for the church to make a difference.

That opportunity was not long in waiting. In fact, on the last Sunday of October, my 3rd Sunday, the day we turn the clocks back an hour, an older Haitian lady and her daughter came to church an hour early, not knowing about the time change. I asked if they would like to attend a Sunday School class for women, called the “Golden Girls.” They said they would. I took them to the class and they also joined us for worship. After church, the lady told her daughter, “That’s the church I want to go to.” What is interesting is that the lady did not speak a word of English, and I have never spoken Creole or French. Her son was a doctor, a gynecologist. Soon he and his family joined us. I was Mrs. Charlot’s pastor for 16 years. She never spoke English, I never spoke French except for a few words of greeting. She never missed church. She had 5 married children and all of them joined us at Kendall. Some of the family has moved to Atlanta, but all of the family has worshipped with us at some time.

I pastored the Kendall church for 21 years. In my last year, we averaged 650 people in the morning service. Some 2,000 people called Kendall their home church. Every year, we celebrated International Days. Every nationality represented in the congregation carried their flag in a procession of nations. Scottish bagpipes led the parade. We have had as many as 65 flags in that procession. In 1998, there were 1400 people who attended that one International service. That year, Anderson University presented me with an honorary Doctor of Divinity, a truly grand finale to our ministry. I retired on December 31, 2002.

I have entitled my pilgrimage “From the Dust Bowl to Paradise.” We love Miami. We have found a blessed refuge here at Plymouth Congregational Church. As I look back on these past 50 years, it has been an exciting journey, and I would do it all over again.

1 comment:

Frank Lowe said...

Brother Dan,
I loved reading your story. It is truly inspiring. I feel I owe a lot to you and your family for your example of inclusiveness and leadership.
So glad we have re-established contact through FB.
If I get to Miami, and I will soon, I hope it's okay if I contact you and maybe I'll go to to church with you. I haven't been to church in a long while, except for a couple funerals, and a few Christmas masses when I was married.
Hope you are well and wish you and your family all the best.
In brotherly love,

Franky Lowe