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' 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.
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