Dargan Burns Interview, December 2005

This 2005 interview of Dargan Burns is a follow up to an earlier interview. In this later interview, Mr. Burns discusses in greater deal his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr--how, when and where they met, and relates very personal stories about King that illuminate King's personality and magnetism as a young minister going to school in Boston in the early 1950s. In the second part of this interview, Burns discusses his involvement in Cleveland's historic Church of the Covenant. Burns discusses the efforts made by himself and other African Americans to integrate the Church in the 1960s and how, as a member of the Church for the past 40 years, he has persevered in his personal struggle to keep the Church integrated.

Participants: Burns, Dargan (interviewee) / Kaczmarski, Lindsey (interviewer)
Collection: History 400: Local History
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:00:02] I'm going to have you say your name again.

Dargan Burns [00:00:05] Yes, ready now? This is Dargan Burns of the Church of the Covenant. My field is public relations.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:00:19] And you talked about working in University Circle as a consultant. So, can you tell me about being an African American in the field of public relations in the city of Cleveland?

Dargan Burns [00:00:28] Be glad to. I came to Cleveland to work at Karamu House in Cleveland. Karamu House and University Circle Incorporated had developed a relationship because they had similar problems. When I completed my work at Karamu House and opened my own agency, I was invited by the director of the University Circle to use my experience and background to assist them in bringing about more comfort and more cooperation with the community of University Circle with the other surrounding communities. That's how I became involved in the University Circle as a consultant. Very interesting opportunity because we were able to use our contacts at Karamu House with those in the community and brought about a relationship between Alta House and Karamu House and University Settlement and community organizations in the Central area to the Little Italy community, which was a very necessary relationship because we were all living together at that time.

Dargan Burns [00:01:54] Very interesting experience from that grew a number of relations in terms of having concerts together, visiting with each other and having them come to Karamu house for various special programs that they enjoyed very much are able to extend their circle of friends.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:02:17] In our first interview, you mentioned Martin Luther King was a colleague and a friend of yours when you were in Boston.

Dargan Burns [00:02:26] Yes.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:02:27] Can you tell me a little bit about what he was like because I think that's really interesting?

Dargan Burns [00:02:32] When I first met Martin Luther King, one of my friends, John Bustamante. Just happened to stop by my apartment in Boston.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:02:45] I hate to interrupt you, but can you spell that name for me because there are some names in our first interview I can't make out [inaudible]

Dargan Burns [00:02:48] Okay. Bustamante. John H. Bustamante B-U-S-T-E-M-A-N-T-E. Bustamante. He's an attorney. John and I met each other in past relationships. And on this particular afternoon, I lived at 1 Claremont Park. John just happened to stop by to bring me a new friend. And this was a young fellow who looked like a minister and acted like a minister and he was a minister. He brought him in and said, DJ. He called me DJ. I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Martin Luther King from Atlanta. I said, well, hello, Reverend King. How were you? He said I'm fine. It's a nice place you have here. Where are you from? I said, I'm from South Carolina. Oh, were you a southern boy, too? Yes, I am. But Martin Luther King was very cordial. He was a very distinguished, very distinguished looking person. And he enjoyed a visit because he had heard about 1 Claremont Park as a place where most of the students were African American. Both girls and boys always found a way to get to 1 Claremont Park because that's where most of the Black men would come because they could get far companionship, because there was usually one or two in the various universities in Boston, at Boston University, Harvard and MIT, Boston College, and all of the colleges had at least one student. It made for a very lonely situation for people who were away from home and had no companionship. We always open up our houses up to them. But 1 Claremont Park is where they would come. The next time Martin Luther King came by with John, we were having dinner. About to have dinner and Martin walked in and had a surprised look on his face. I said, well minister, what's your problem? He said I see all these settings here. I don't particularly see any I'm familiar with what we had. Of course, saucers from Brandeis. We had silver from Boston University, had napkins from Harvard. He had all kinds of cups and saucers. But we had... we ran out of ours we borrowed from the universities. Any time a lady would come for dinner, they were bringing their own silverware from their own dormitory. So we had a potpourri of different kinds of utensils. He said now what did you, your people do, borrow these or did you steal? Well, I can't speak for the rest of them, but when they come in, they bring their own because we don't have any. However, we would love to change this, but we haven't had an opportunity to do so. But he did not eat that day. He said I can't eat out or stolen goods. I said, well, we will try to find some plastic forks and plates for you when you come next time. He said, No, I'll bring my own. So Martin did just that. Next time he came, he brought a set of tin plates, knives, forks, and spoons that he had bought. He said, here is what you should be eating with. I said thank you very much. Now, what I'll be going to do with the things that we have here. He said take them back where you got him from but, he was a very good friend of all of ours. He wanted us to do the right thing. So we respected him. As a matter of fact, he was so dedicated to his philosophy until we call him the Little Job Preacher, he always go to stay in the kitchen and talk to the ladies while we're cooking. And now the boys would run through the ladies themselves, but they had a difficult time because he's always occupying the interests and present. But that's the kind of person he was and he was at that time. So we had a wonderful time with him and we developed a very close friendship. And he was a person that could rally all of us to go to church every Sunday. The hook to that was once you went to church, people in Boston knew him as one of the most interesting young preachers. So they were here at church with him. We could always expect that the minister of the church will ask him to come up and say a few words. Martin was always ready to preach. He had some very short sermons, so he would have a speech or very short sermon and a spot, a congregation. And from that, the minister would ask that each of the visiting students rise and tell their name and where they're from and what they're studying. So we had a great time getting acquainted with each other as well as sharing with the congregation, how far and wide that we had come. There were usually about 18 or 20 of us or at any one church. The minister would also say, well, you have the opportunity to take one of these students home with you and give them a good Sunday meal. And that was always inviting through us because we were not that privileged being away from home. So we would have the opportunity to go home with the members of the congregation and they would learn more about us and we would learn more about them. So we develop a rapport in the community as students.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:09:46] What was the most important thing that you learned from Martin Luther King?

Dargan Burns [00:09:51] Oh, I learned a number of things from him. Being yourself, being dedicated to your philosophy of life. Be kind to people. Be a Christian and stand up for your rights and do not falter in your moral determination. He was very high on that because... And he did not eat in my house until he got some cleared utensils. [crosstalk] Yeah. Yeah. A matter of fact, the next time he came and he did not. Yeah. He had. He was hungry, wanted to have a little snack. He said well, Dargan, I'm not going to eat out of your utensils. But I have a can of sardines here. You're welcome to join me if you want if you're hungry as I am. I said, Yes, I will join you. He had wooden forks--this is back in 1951--so we had opened a can of sardines and he ate out of the can of sardines, he had one side and I had one side.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:11:15] So he had some personality on him?

Dargan Burns [00:11:18] Yes, he was in, but there was a likable personality. He knew that he was a righteous person and we respected that and we became righteous ourselves.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:11:31] Okay, now I am going to actually get into the Church of the Covenant. How would you describe the Church of the Covenant to someone who's never heard of it? Regarding their religion, Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian.

Dargan Burns [00:11:44] Yes.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:11:46] Just summing up in a few words the Church of the Covenant.

Dargan Burns [00:11:48] The Church of the Covenant has always been a unique church because it is situated in the University Circle. For years it was the most noticeable church in Cleveland, especially on the East Side, because of this edifice, of its location in Universe Circle. But it was known to have some of the most prominent people in Cleveland as members of the church.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:12:21] When we say prominent, are we talking about white prominent people?

Dargan Burns [00:12:25] White prominent people. This was in the '50s?

Dargan Burns [00:12:28] In the '50s. Yes. It had always been that way. However, one of the most noticeable persons was the Mayor of the city of Cleveland, Ralph Locher was a member of the Church of the Covenant and he was recognized as a person who was a very dedicated person to the Church of the Covenant. In addition to Ralph Locher we had the chairman of the Cleveland Trust Bank as a member of the Church of the Covenant, chairman of Society Savings, a member of Church of the Covenant, Capital Bank chairman was another Church of the Covenant. We had the top people in housing, in industry. As a matter of fact the church had more corporate people as members than any other church in Cleveland at that time. And because of this, its clout, so to speak, it was recognized as being one of the most influential churches in Cleveland. And the outstanding attribute of the Church of the Covenant was the number of prominent women who were independent they were professionals and they were all white. And it was expected to be that way. One of the menaces that came along at that time was Dr. Harry B. Taylor, who saw the Church of the Covenant as a godsend to Cleveland because it had wealth it had and intellectual leadership, the location was fine and it had the largest congregation in Cleveland. But the one thing that was missing was a lack of sensitivity to the community. Integration was never thought of the Church of the Covenant except that out of Karamu Board of trustees. There was some discussion about how long can the Church of the Covenant exists. Being such a racist institution and the board took it into consideration that we should do something about that. It so happened that Harry B. Taylor was a member of the board of trustees of Karamu House. The Board of Trustees at Karamu House determined that it's time we took some action to integrate the Church of the Covenant because to integrate the Church of the Covenant would mean we would integrate most other churches in Cleveland because they were all segregated for the most part so far as records show it. And that strategy was that they would do so. One of the wonderful things that happened was a member of the men's committee. Was approached by a committee of Karamu House to ask for a contribution to Karamu House because we had Karamu House at that time was supported by Welfare Federation, but funds were very limited and in a people's mail to this particular gentleman who was on a men's committee at the Church of the Covenant, he made a contribution, but he made it as a member of the men's committee, so nothing came from him, it came from the church. With that in mind, the board of trustees decided that they would do their best to integrate the Church of the Covenant. And they did. They asked J. Harold Brown, who was the director of music at Karamu House, if he would join the church and see if they would accept him. He is a master organist, the director of Karamu Quartet and Director of Music. And J. Harold said, yes I'll be glad to because I think they should enjoy some good music. And he said, well, you need more than one person. So, yes, you do. But you be the first and we will ask Dargan Burns if he would join you. And I said, yes, I'd be glad to. I'm not a Presbyterian, but I can become one. So J. Harold went to church first and he was received very coldly and, but he stayed. My wife and I joined the church. I went to church to check it out, and we went to a morning service, an early service at 9:30. We got in and took a seat in the balcony and we sat down. The other couples looked down and moved away from us. And that was very disturbing to my wife, not to me, because I had experienced that before in other situations. But we stayed and we had a very cold reception there at the time, except two couples came up and asked us who we were and welcomed us to the Church of the Covenant, and that made a difference. But that was the beginning of the integration of the Church of the Covenant. But eventually J. Harold Brown was able to even play the organ. At the beginning, he couldn't play the organ.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:19:12] Is it true that Black members of the church left following Harry Taylor's departure in 1966, and, if so, why?

Dargan Burns [00:19:18] No, not all, but some did. We had our greatest exodus at that time because it was maltreatment of the Blacks at the time. And that was. I can't say it's by accident because it was sort of structured that they were going to take pictures of certain aspects of the church with Harry Taylor.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:19:45] I'm just trying to... First Blacks were not accepted. And Harry Taylor fought, you know, and really pushed for...

Dargan Burns [00:19:52] Right.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:19:53] ... Integration of the Church of the Covenant African Americans were accepted. And it just got bad and he left, and then [crosstalk]

Dargan Burns [00:20:00] No, no, no. It wasn't Harry Taylor leaving. There were some very, very strong supporters of the church. It was a very committed male and female members of the church who had put a lot of money in the church. Rightfully so and they did not take too long of integration, as most people took. At that time, they were very vocal. And when we had our anniversary celebration and invited all of the older members to the church and voted for about six months before we had the celebration and we had a church participation and a committee decided they were going to use this particular occasion to epitomize what the church's is all about. So they took pictures of Harry Taylor with certain groups in the church and they excluded, for the most part, the Blacks until after the banquet. And most people had left, including some Blacks. The photographer says, oh, my goodness, we didn't get a picture of the Blacks. By that time half were gone. So he tried to rally us, come back, take a picture of Harry and he and his wife very aware of this a very uncomfortable with... He thought of it as a dire oversight. So we all followed him back and he reluctantly took a picture of a few Blacks left, but those who left at that time did not come back to the Church of the Covenant. And they also wondered why we stayed. We stayed because we had a mission to integrate the Church of the Covenant. We had so we are not going to relinquish that because of that one incident.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:22:04] It was so hard to get in and be accepted.

Dargan Burns [00:22:05] Right. Right. But we paid the price for that. It was an error. But it was as poignant to the whites as it was to the Blacks because it took a lot of nerve to go in to intergrate in the first place, but people were able to get through it.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:22:25] Would you say the Church of the Covenant today is a relatively integrated church? What is the majority race?

Dargan Burns [00:22:35] It is not as integrated as it was at one time. As a matter of fact, it has few African Americans now than it had before. As a matter of fact, we had as many as 45 or 50 Africans from 30 different countries to migrate to the Church of the Covenant because it was an integrated church and because they heard so much about it and they were well received, but administrations change and philosophies change. So we lost all of them because we, well I should say all. We have gotten some new ones they coming and go all the time, but we had a majority of the Africans who were attending church at the Church of the Covenant.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:23:29] So there are more white people that attend the Church of the Covenant today than African Americans?

Dargan Burns [00:23:33] Oh, yes.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:23:33] I thought it was the opposite.

Dargan Burns [00:23:36] Oh, no, no. We have the smallest number of African Americans at the Church of the Covenant today than there were 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Maybe one of the beautiful, most beautiful experiences I've had at the Church of the Covenant was when Rev. Jim [James F.] Dowd had all the Africans in the church to come and be a part of a service. And there were thirty- two or thirty-four them, participated in their own regalia, and for the benediction, they all recited the benediction in their own language, in their own regalia. And it was the most beautiful experience you would ever experience.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:24:33] I'm going to add something.

Dargan Burns [00:24:33] Yes.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:24:34] I thought it was the other way around. Would you say that the population... the majority race in the church reflects the neighborhood? Or, I mean, if there's more whites attending the church, isn't it in a black neighborhood?

Dargan Burns [00:24:48] No. The Church of the Covenant is in a mixed neighborhood, but the majority of them are white. Many students and young professionals who work in the major institutions around University Circle and there are many there are a number of African American blacks who live in the neighborhood, but they're in the minority, not the majority. But there are so many churches within walking distance of the Church of the Covenant.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:25:28] Because it's a decent area.

Dargan Burns [00:25:30] It is, yes. But you have such a diversity in the area. For example, you have Murray Hill, which is an area that most Blacks shun.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:25:48] Still to this day?

Dargan Burns [00:25:50] Yes. They come in and they go, but they don't linger. They're welcome. But the history of Murray Hill. Black relations has always been strained. So most of us are careful about driving through there at times. And if you can avoid going through there, not just because of the traffic but because of incidents happen and you don't be bothered with that. So you just drive the long way around, you see.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:26:28] Of the African Americans that are members of the congregation at the church today, they're completely accepted? I mean, it's all of the racial segregation, is that pretty much over? I would think by today it...

Dargan Burns [00:26:44] You would think so, but if you, for example, last Sunday, if you had visited Church of the Covenant, you would have seen a completely white ushering staff. At least six people were ushers. You would have seen a completely white communion staff serving communion and that should not be. We are an integrated church, we stress diversity. Now there are other reasons why this may happen, because a person could not attend, could not keep their commitment. But that does not... that reoccurs sometimes which means that we are not serious about our point of diversity, because I served on that committee for about 14 years, and at no time did we ever have a communion committee, a communion group serving communion, that did not reflect diversity, age, color, male, female, whatever the case. So when you come into church during those days, you will see integration. It took a lot of time and effort to do that. But that's what church is all about. But this is just a matter of the conscientiousness of the person that's doing the job. And it's accepted.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:28:34] How important is the church to you and to your family today?

Dargan Burns [00:28:40] It is very important because we've had success in integrating the Church of the Covenant. I have two sons. They're both bred in the Church of the Covenant back at the time when we were the first... one of the first families there. There were certain teachers in our Sunday school administration that took the time to devote to the African American students. And they did a beautiful job. They'd be certain that they were not neglected they taught well. They're integrated into every system of the church and they've got a good education. Now, that's because of the teachers who were there and they were also part of our integrating the Cleveland Museum of Art as an influence in Karamu House, and the other institutions in and around University Circle were integrated through the influence of the Church of the Covenant. So today we have a nice comfort level around us, but we are still trying to struggle with how to get more African Americans to come to the Church of the Covenant and be more comfortable and not have to wonder if I want it here. Well, I've been there now for 40 years. I'm there. Will always be there. Yeah. I'm not going to let my boys see the same way. They'll be back in this couple of months because they coming in for a very special program. But they haven't maintained their rapport with their teachers and they communicate. And it's just a wonderful family experience.

Lindsey Kaczmarski [00:30:41] Well, it's a quarter to eleven. I can keep going or we can stop.

Dargan Burns [00:30:44] Well, let me supply you with some information because I have. You have just got time and get me. I should be. And then we'll be able to... From that, you can have a lot of your questions be answered anyway. I just couldn't put both hands on it this morning, but I need you to put me your fax number.

[00:31:09] [Interview ends]