: The Importance of Being Turbaned :

an excerpt by Paul A. Kramer


It didn’t occur to Rev. Jesse Wayman Routté until later that the best way for a colored man to dodge white harassment was to wear a turban.

            In September 1943 Routté, the pastor of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York City, 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,” in the words of theNew YorkAmsterdam 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 over the place,” he later told a reporter. “And I didn’t like being Jim Crowed.” On his way South, Routté had ridden in a luxurious Pullman car and encountered “little if any segregation.” But on his return trip, he chose to ride coach, “for educational purposes only.” He was consigned to a dirty, airless car directly behind the steam engine; in the dining car, porters partitioned him off from other passengers with a screen. He fasted for the next two days in protest and contemplation. Back home, he told the New YorkAmsterdam Newsthat such outrages called for a “great deal of prayer” and, he added, “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 always suggested traveling in a turban and robes. “They say it makes things easier,” Routté said later. A showman not given to halfway measures, he visited a costume shop in Manhattan and rented a towering, spangled, purple turban. On the train to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, segregation’s northern railroad terminus, he kept it packed away and rode in his official clerical collar. But before the train pulled into the station, he slipped into the men’s room, removed his collar, donned a velveteen robe that 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 doing it just the same.”