It was only later that Rev. Jesse Wayman Routté learned that a black man could dodge white harassment by wearing a turban. In September 1943, Routté, the 37-year-old pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Queens, New York, boarded the train to Mobile, Alabama, to officiate at his brother Louis’s wedding. In Mobile, Routté, a gifted singer and lecturer, sang spirituals before a “mixed audience,” according to the New York Amsterdam News, and received “many congratulations from both races.” He was also greeted with segregationist hospitality. “I was Jim Crowed here, Jim Crowed there, Jim Crowed all around the place,” he told a reporter. “And I didn’t like being Jim Crowed.”
On his way south, Routté had ridden in a luxurious Pullman railroad car and encountered “little if any segregation.” But on his return trip, he chose to ride coach. He was consigned to a dirty, airless car directly behind the steam engine. Dining car porters separated him from the other passengers with a partition. He fasted for two days in protest and contemplation. Back home, he told reporters that such outrages called for a “great deal of prayer” and “an equal amount of planning.”
Routté returned to Mobile at his brother’s invitation in November 1947, and this time, he planned. Sisters in Mobile’s Lutheran missionary societies had told him that when they expected a “visiting Negro of rank,” they suggested the person travel in a turban and robes.
“They say it makes things easier,” Routté said later.
Not given to halfway measures, Routté visited a costume shop in Manhattan and rented a towering, spangled, purple turban. He rode the train in his clerical collar until shortly before reaching Union Station in Washington, D.C., segregation’s northern railroad terminus. Just before the train pulled into the station, he slipped into the men’s room, removed his collar, donned a velveteen robe he wore during concerts, and arranged the turban on his head. “I was so scared I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recounted. “But I was doin’ it just the same.”
Routté wasn’t the first black person to trick Jim Crow by conjuring up the “foreign.” Author James Weldon Johnson had been allowed to remain in a first-class railway car by speaking Spanish with a friend. Others acted on what Theophilus Lewis later called “the chapeau theory of interracial rapprochement.” Joseph Downing of Edwardsville, Illinois, donned “exotic” headwear as “Prince Jovedah de Rajah”; he had grown rich advising white bankers and — before he went broke — had taken rooms at fashionable, otherwise white hotels in Miami and Palm Beach. Conning the multicolored race of the gullible was nothing new.
Still, Routté’s game was different. Where others had pulled turban and language acts for private gain, Routté would invite the world to his prank. And while he insisted on the innocence of his plot (“I wasn’t trying to fool anybody,” he told reporters, trying to fool them), there was no mistaking its aggression. “I felt like a paratrooper behind enemy lines,” he said.
When it came to the idea of Mobile as a war zone, the metaphor was apt. In June 1946, during a campaign to register black voters, a local white police officer had beaten an elderly black contractor named Napoleon Rivers Sr., who was vouching for black registrants. Five weeks later, Rivers was still recovering from his wounds and awaiting charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The assault had happened inside the Mobile courthouse.
I hadn’t set out in search of a Lutheran minister in an odd hat. I’m a historian, and had been combing through digital newspapers looking for something else when, out of the blue, Routté’s grainy portrait was gazing back at me from a 1947 issue of The New York Times, baubles dangling from his turban, eyes theatrically aloof. In my world, the idea that a turban might protect you from racist harm was not intuitive. What kind of person — what kind of Lutheran minister — pulled a stunt like this?
It was too peculiar to leave alone. Online archives yielded up the names of his family members, colleges and churches. Google, and the reverend’s unusual last name (pronounced Root-ay), led me to Routté’s daughter, Eneid Routté, a retired journalist in Puerto Rico, who send me an article she’d once written, based on her mother’s recollections, about what came to be called the “turban trip.”
I tracked down Routté’s son Luther, a retired minister, then 71, and spoke with him at his home in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. He was wiry, limber, and growled in a Queens accent; he described the turban trip as a judo flip, and his arms curled in a slow, precise arc, ending with a muscular snap. His father, he told me, had hoped to show that “when it came to segregation and the whole meshugas about who blacks were, these people did not know what they were doing.”
From newspaper fragments, census records and passed-down family lore, Routté’s story took shape. He had been born in June 1906, in Macon, Missouri, the eldest of Lulu and Lewis Routté’s three sons. Lulu was musical, Lewis a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The family was poor: Lewis worked at a local iron and steel plant while serving the small black community of Kewanee, Illinois, and moved his family with him as he ministered to various congregations in the Midwest. His death in the 1918 influenza epidemic left Lulu and their children destitute. She moved the family to Rock Island, Illinois, and made ends meet by arranging for the boys to sing. Jesse attended high school in Rock Island and worked for a cleaning and dyeing company after school.
By any measure, Routté’s entry into Swedish Lutheranism was unlikely. Routté had been raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Luther told me his father had been uneasy with the black church’s “emotional denominations,” and preferred more solemn worship. Just a short stroll away from his home in Rock Island stood Augustana College and Seminary, where nearly all of the students and faculty were of Swedish descent, and where the religious practices met the bill. Routté somehow discovered the church and found himself drawn to it; Conrad Bergendorff, a pioneer in the Lutheran ecumenical movement, supported his admission, and his employer helped pay for room and board.
Routté said he’d feared he would “have a hard time of it and be friendless” at Augustana. Some there viewed him with suspicion. Rumors swirled — toxic and typical of the age — that he had a transgressive affinity for white women. But his humor, musical gifts, and what a colleague called his “winsome” personality gathered into a quiet charisma. “The Swedes draw a tight circle around themselves with their kaffeklatsches,” he told his children. “But I drew a larger circle around them, and drew them in.”
Over summer breaks, Routté journeyed across the Midwest and out to the East Coast, singing and lecturing in shows arranged by church officers. The performance circuit supported Routté and his family, honed his craft, and raised his standing and reputation. Straddling distant, if neighboring, white and black worlds, Routté blended Western classical and religious music on piano and violin with what one article called “the best in Negro music and poetry,” including spirituals and works by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The evenings’ gentility belied their boldness in equalizing the traditions, and their rebellion in harmonizing beauty across music’s formidable color lines.
When Routté graduated from the seminary, the Augustana church’s circle proved tight indeed. It had been possible to admit a black student, but the idea of a black pastor for a white congregation was seen as “repugnant,” one bishop emeritus recalled. Church officials ultimately found a place for Routté: Race beat out denomination, and in a highly unorthodox move, officials arranged for him to join the United Lutheran Church, which in turn assigned him to the Church of the Transfiguration on 126th Street in Harlem. It was the religious home to black Lutheran immigrants from St. Thomas and St. Croix, whose ancestors had been converted by Danish missionaries and whose religious practices were — via Scandinavia — recognizable to Routté and vice versa.
It wasn’t Routté’s first time in Harlem. His musical odysseys had once taken him there, and he had been fascinated by what he called the “thriving black city,” a “mad medley” full of “surprising types”: “colored people speaking Jewish, Danish, Swedish, German, Spanish, Italian, and French, as if each language were their native tongue.” Now they were his flock. When his West Indian congregation streamed from Harlem to Jamaica, Queens, drawn to new industrial jobs, Routté followed them, opening Holy Trinity Lutheran Church there in May 1933.
Luther suspected that his father felt some resentment at being assigned to New York. But Routté and his wife, Maud Enid Gomez, an ambitious immigrant from St. Thomas he married in 1938, assembled a broad social circle. They lived eight blocks from the church in a middle-class black neighborhood known for its respectability — lawyers, teachers, railroad porters — and for its star power, especially in the music world. Jesse presided at the wedding of Pearl Bailey and big-band leader Louie Bellson; Maud socialized with Count Basie’s wife, Catherine. “I delivered newspapers to Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne,” Luther said.
As his ministry grew, Routté prized his ability to connect with New York’s riotous multitude of cultures, but he grew particularly close to Jews, brunching with a cluster of rabbis each Friday morning at the Horn & Hardart automat or Bickford’s cafeteria on Jamaica Avenue. Norman Newhouse, the Jewish editor of the Long Island Daily Press, became a close friend and confidante, and the only person Routté told of the “turban trip” beforehand. Routté’s working knowledge of Yiddish helped; he had learned to converse back in Rock Island while working part-time as a synagogue janitor. “The lingua franca of existence,” Luther told me, “is being able to speak to people on their own level.”
Routté believed in a church that could serve and heal a broken and suffering world, pressing for social supports like day care, adult education, and vocational guidance for his working-class congregants, as well as campaigning against juvenile delinquency, finding summer jobs for kids, raising funds for camp, and gathering Christmas gifts for the poor. Large consequences, he believed, could flow from seemingly small “transformational” acts.
He also called down fire from the pulpit. In a 1941 sermon, Routté spoke of black people’s “multitudinous contributions to all phases of world life” despite their emancipation without capital, land, tools or training. “Every day we come in contact with those who are torn and wounded by the cruel talons of intolerance,” he preached. “To go to their rescue, and bare our shoulders to their danger, and conquer their enemies in Christ’s strength, is our blessed privilege.”
Why did Routté choose to disguise himself on enemy ground, probing and potentially humiliating the Jim Crow South and in the process, baring his shoulders to significant danger? There was, of course, the purely tactical hope that, on a journey he was taking for other reasons, a turban might “make things easier,” confusing and temporarily disarming potentially hostile white people. But by his own account, Routté had at least two other motives in mind.
The first was investigative: a desire to determine what exactly it was that white people feared and hated about people of color. The second was educational, the propaganda of the mischievous deed. Prior to the trip, he had enlisted his friend Norman Newhouse, editor of the Long Island Daily Press, to publicize the story and to intervene if something went wrong. In line with one of his favorite calls to arms — “We are fighting an empire of ignorance!” — the trip might, he hoped, teach potent lessons about race’s strange meaning.
There is also, ultimately, something that eludes explanation. Routté had been attracted to Lutheran restraint. He had traveled thousands of miles gently prodding white audiences to respect black artistry. One is tempted to read into the exploit a person no longer trying to civilize himself or anyone else. The turban trip was, in this way, the opposite of his musical evenings. Rather than easing open the circle — placing spirituals and classical music on a plane of equality — this was a guerrilla assault on the circle’s exclusionary edge.
The news arrived by radio. Maud recalled hearing an announcement over WOR-AM that her husband “had just found freedom from Jim Crow by way of the turban.” She feared for his safety and prayed for strength and courage. But she also recalled feeling proud, explaining to her children that their father “had just made an important discovery in human relations.”
The story spread, spilling out first on the front page of Newhouse’s Long Island Sunday Press, and then in The New York Times, which also placed the story on its front page. Within days, the story seized headlines across the country. The black press was jubilant. For The Pittsburgh Courier, Routté had turned the “No. 1 headgear of the Far Eastern countries” into “the big gun in a one-man blitz on jim crow.” “Because this whole question of race relations is full of contradictions,” B. F. Phillips of Baltimore’s The Afro-American wrote, “it always amuses me to hear of incidents where ‘we put one over on them.’”
Routté’s tale shifted a bit between tellings, but its outlines held. Stepping out robed and turbaned onto the platform at Union Station, he had walked among the throngs, returning nervous looks. When the Southern Railway train for Mobile pulled in, he bypassed the Jim Crow car and entered a coach reserved for whites. When passengers stared, he stared back, “because Negroes in the South always look down.” The conductor took his ticket without comment.
The train reached Greenville, North Carolina, around lunchtime. Hungry, Routté walked back four cars to the diner, to find the only vacant seat at a table occupied by two white couples. Routté went over and joined them, “my robes flowing, my turban still perched jauntily on my head.” One of the men grinned. “Well, what have we got here?”
Routté smiled pleasantly and, in his best Swedish accent, answered, “We have here an Apostle of Good Will and Love.” The man looked baffled. A black porter eyed him fiercely upon taking their order — “He knew what I was” — but Routté just glared back. Lunch with the white passengers, featuring courteous, Swedish-accented chitchat about the weather, went smoothly. “It shows what courtesy and politeness can do in human relationships,” he told the Daily Press.
Routté got off the train in Mobile still turbaned, and throughout his weeklong stay, he wore it whenever he appeared in public, apart from recitals and devotions at his brother’s church. The turban took him far. He dropped in on police officials, the chamber of commerce, merchants and factory owners, introducing himself as “an apostle of human relations, seeing how other men lived and doing what I could to help all men live in peace and harmony.”
Officials treated Routté to a tour of segregated city public schools and told him they were unready for mixed classes; Routté urged teachers and pupils to be more “tolerant and kind.” An officer in the Mobile Police Department took him on a tour of headquarters. He asked a captain how police handled the “Negro problem.”
“We don’t have a problem,” the man replied. “If we have any trouble with a nigger we just knock him down.”
He bluffed his way into Mobile’s finest restaurants, staring down any skeptical staff. “What happens if a Negro gentleman comes in here and sits down to eat?” he asked a headwaiter. He would not be served, the man replied, but the question was irrelevant, as “no Negro would dare come in here to eat.” Routté “stroked his chin gravely and ordered his dessert.”
While not downplaying the danger (the police captain’s offhanded threat of brutality had frightened him), Routté played the story for laughs. His flamboyantly scrambled otherness — where else in the known universe did turbans and Swedishness mingle? — the earnestness with which white Mobilians fielded his questions about the everyday workings of white supremacy, the resting of social membership on a hat, cast Jim Crow in an absurdist light. “Race prejudice has been denounced for its injustice, cruelty, and stupidity,” wrote Theophilus Lewis in the Interracial Review. “Rev. Routté has proved that it is also silly.”
Not everyone was amused. While the Augustana College newspaper congratulated Routté, his superiors in the United Lutheran Church did not. “They thought the trip obfuscated his work and his effectiveness,” Luther told me. In her national newspaper column, Eleanor Roosevelt “grieved” over the story; the public exposure of Jim Crow’s arbitrary cruelty was worth it if the country was properly ashamed — otherwise, she wished the turban story hadn’t surfaced, “because the rest of the world won’t be impressed that it could happen.”
Particularly in Mobile, black Southerners expressed apprehension about Routté’s ostentatious feat; he had prodded, and then left, the hornets’ nest in which they lived. “A lot of folks down there thought it was going to hurt,” Luther explains, “that there were going to be repercussions.” Maud recalled that her husband had been told by an “old-time preacher” that it would “take one hundred years to see the good you’ve done. But you’ll see the evil soon.”
Some observers took away from the turban trip a serious, novel and durable point: Whites did not react to black people as such — Routté had never ceased to be black — but to “the Negro” or what Pittsburgh Courier columnist Marjorie McKenzie called “a Word Symbol.” “A man in a jeweled turban is not a Negro,” she wrote, and so he didn’t “evoke the response that is called up in the Southern white mind when the word Negro is mentioned or thought to apply to a person or a group.”
The fact that, in the guise of a foreigner, Routté had been so “well-received” in the South suggested that the era’s conventional wisdom about the root of racism in America was wrong. It was not that black people were mistreated because they were seen as alien, but because they were American; not because they were unknowable, but because they were presumed to be known.
Among those on whom this distinction was lost was the Ku Klux Klan. According to Luther, shortly after news of the trip broke, Routté received a phone call at his home from Klan leaders, who threatened to kill him. The Klan burned a cross on the family’s front lawn; Jesse and Maud sent the children to live with church members for several months.
Predictably, white Mobile newspapers sent a reporter out to investigate — and debunk — Routté’s story. “Eastern Colored Man Claims He Crashed ‘Color Line,’ Here” read The Mobile Press headline one day after the story broke in Long Island. Two captains on Mobile’s police force “denied having talked with such a turbaned individual.” While the managers of most “leading” restaurants also denied seeing anyone like Routté, the owner of Joe Jefferson House said that “a dark-skinned person, wearing a turban-like hat” had come in about two weeks earlier, placed an order, and been told that “he could not be served unless he removed his hat.” The man had refused to comply and walked out.
Had he or hadn’t he? There is no particular reason to trust The Mobile Press on the question. And in the end, the turban trip’s most telling feature may be that, apart from a few angry editors in Mobile, no one seems to have thought to ask. The reason, I suspect, is that Routté’s story, true or not, arrived precisely when the surrounding culture was ready to help invent it.
By late 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had launched unprecedented campaigns to integrate wartime housing, industry and the military. Thousands of black veterans had returned to the United States frustrated with the strong resemblance between Nazi Aryanism and the segregated American army that had been sent to fight against it. In December 1946, President Truman had established the Committee on Civil Rights to investigate American racial politics and propose reforms; its report was issued within weeks of Routté’s trip to the South.
The electricity of the turban trip, in other words, rushed from a society poised to believe that people engaged each other — for better and often for worse — through the “word symbols” in their heads; that for all its trappings of science, law and religion, race was capricious and irrational; that far from commanding terrorized deference, Jim Crow could and should be poked in the eye. In the years that followed, Routté continued to be known for the episode, but he didn’t place much emphasis on it. He had larger circles to draw.