Friday, January 3, 2014

Fordie Ross, Former Moderator, Madrona Presbyterian Church

Fordie Ross served his community, his church and his family during his 100 years. He has now passed on and that loss is still much mourned while the memory of his quality and impact is treasured.

Photo by Madeline Crowley

"I am one who believes that you concentrate not on the bad but on the good;
that you build on the good rather than the bad. That is what we have chosen always to do."   

About Fordie Ross:

Even at nearly 100 years old, Fordie’s life revolves around service to others. It gets him up and out to Y’s Men’s meetings, to church and out on his 2-mile walks. He is a living example of how a life focused on giving keeps you alert, active and fully alive.

Fordie Ross on Madrona Church and a life well lived:  

Where did you and Thelma live in the Central Area?

On 32nd Avenue, north of the Madrona Presbyterian Church. In the early 1950s, we lived in a house that had a dirt basement. Every week I would go and get concrete. I finished that floor.

I have to ask what you have heard of me?

You’re spoken of very fondly as a very smart, very kind man. Mr. Zimmerly told me you’re a good man with a long history with the church. I also saw an article on your walking program in the Seattle Times.

I have a long history of service both in Seattle and the Church.
Fordie Ross of the Y's Men's Club. Collection Fordie Ross

Also, I do walk every day. One day a reporter from the Seattle Times asked to walk the two miles with me. When we arrived back home, he said, 'Hey, let me get inside because I have to sit down.' He was tired. 

I don’t know where to begin.

Can you begin with the Grace Church?

The Grace Church (formerly on Cherry & 22nd, building still extant) would be about the same size as the living room of my house.

Before that though, my wife and daughter were born in Oklahoma City, OK.  I lived there and worked at a Baptist Church. One day, I met a Seattle Minister who found out I was well versed in Sales. He told me about a newspaper in Seattle. Then, the owner of the paper called and asked me to come to Seattle to take a test to become the Editor of the paper. His name was Noodles Smith, the richest black man ever to come to Seattle.

The fascinating story of Noodles Smith pictured with his fine automobile
I came to Seattle, as did five other black men from around the country. We were all given a test, which I won. Two weeks after I moved here, Noodles Smith dropped dead. I didn’t have the money to keep the newspaper going and his family couldn’t agree on what to do, so the newspaper was closed. That meant that I was out of a job. (long pause) I pause because if I tell you what happened immediately, I would kill the magnificence of the whole story. I won’t tell you right at this minute.

So, let me tell you that my wife, child and I had come to Seattle and we arrived on a Sunday. On that same Sunday we found Grace Presbyterian Church. I was born a Presbyterian, my father was a Presbyterian Minister. We not only joined the Church, we pledged and we never missed a pledge from 1952 until today.

To pledge is to give money? So, you pledged but you didn’t have a job?

That’s right. I pledged but I didn’t have a job.

Can you tell me the story of how the Grace Church became part of the Madrona Presbyterian Church?  

The Presbytery decided they were going to close Grace Church. They were very firm in their decision. And then they were firm in their decision that if we wanted to scatter to a variety of Presbyterian churches, we could do so. They also extended us the invitation to merge with Madrona Church.

Had the congregation at Grace bought the land the Church was on?

I’m sure they had.  I don’t know for certain. I’m sure they were owners of the land on 22nd and Cherry.

So, the congregation put their own money into buying the land for Grace Church which was sold. Then, they were told to attend Madrona Church.

One day in 1952 we marched as a group to where Madrona Church is located. At that time, it was an all white Church with a membership of 144. We worshipped with them that particular Sunday. The next Sunday, we went to Church having been instructed by the Presbytery to go to that church. And all of the members of Madrona church had left except eight, only eight people from 144 had come to worship.

Even in Seattle, which has a reputation for being liberal, people didn’t want to worship together?

That is absolutely correct. They did not want to worship together.

I heard that when Grace Church was sold that money was used to start a church in Mercer Island.

That money went to build the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.

Yet, I have to stand up in defense of Mercer Island Church because (50 years later) they did a superb job in making certain that Madrona was recompensed for the money that went to Mercer Island.

They did it not in words but in their actions. Everyone I can think of from Mercer Island Church came every day for five months to rebuild the main sanctuary and the fellowship area. How do I know? I know because I am he who at 7 o’clock in the morning was opening the doors for Mercer Island men and women who worked like beavers in behalf of the Madrona Church.

They did a superb job inside and out. Above all there were members of the Church who worked even on the roof of Madrona Church. So Mercer Island Church decided they were going to put in new carpet and to do that all the pews had to be taken downstairs. We had all to work like beavers. Mercer Island Church was superb. They were grand. They were great. I can’t say too much about how much we appreciate Mercer Island Church for all that they did, and the money that they spent, and the labor that they devoted. They revamped not only the sanctuary but the Fellowship Hall as well.

That is a sermon of life. It should be always remembered. One important thing is when they repaired it, 90% of the church was black. They did all that for black people.

Madrona Presbyterian Church. Photo: Madeline Crowley

So a white church in Mercer Island did this for a largely black church in Seattle.

That’s exactly what I’m saying. That’s absolutely right. The congregation was 90% black when they did the repair. 

Thank God for Mercer Island. You look up at the Cross and you see the love of Mercer Island, you see that love in everything you see in our Church.

They were terrific. I shout with great joy for that Mercer Island Church, that’s how my feelings are about it. No one has asked me to say a word. The greatest thing about it all, Madrona Church did not ask them to do a thing. It was Mercer Island that felt that they should repay Madrona Church. They decided to do it in such a way that it will outlive the amount they received (from the sale of Grace Church), which in today’s dollars is chickenfeed. Oh, I love Mercer Island Church.

They were in our church for worship; Mercer Island was there. I can say that the greatest gift Madrona has received has been the gift that comes as Love in Action. You can tell the world, that’s the way I feel. Man, they were terrific. I wrote a letter to one member of that church, and he told me that when he read that letter he sat and cried. It’s a thanksgiving for one who says we love you for all that you are.

 What did it feel like when Mercer Island Presbyterian repaired Madrona Church? Did it heal the injustice?

Oh, yes! We never harbored the injustice. We were bigger than the injustice. In fact, if it were not for the Presbytery we would not have fully known the facts of that injustice.

During its existence Madrona has been a church that loved people. We fell in love with Mercer Island Church and we love Mercer Island today.

I am one who believes that you concentrate not on the bad but on the good; that you build on the good rather than the bad. That is what we have chosen always to do.

We love that Mercer Island more than other the Churches in the Presbytery. Mercer Island put down a new floor, beautiful as can be. You can’t say too much of great joy and thanksgiving for its physical labor, for its financial labor. They were superb. 

  Since then, for five years I was in charge of Fathers’ Day at the Church and the center aisle was cordoned off for only. I have pictures of the whole sanctuary filled 98% with black men. Right now, it is 98% all white.

Most Sundays I am one of only three black men in the Church.

How did that happen?

We all wonder about that.

Is it a problem getting young people to come to Church?

We have young people, that’s all we have, but they’re all white.

Do you feel comfortable in Madrona Church?

That’s a tough question to answer, I feel comfortable at Madrona because I am a Presbyterian. I feel uncomfortable because I cannot and do not enjoy the comfort that I desire. I mean by that that there are no blacks. I am comfortable as a member of the Church. Also as a follower of Christ I have the task of trying to increase the ‘black fold.’ I know how almost impossible it is because there are so very few blacks remaining in that area. There are very few blacks who can even spell the word, “Presbyterian.”

I am the only living member of Madrona Church: black, white, purple, green or grey who has been an elected delegate to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. There used to be a Black Caucus in the Presbyterian Church. For years, I was President of the Black Caucus for the Synod of Alaska. I am the only member of the Church who has held a national position of the church. I am the only black person from that church who had that position. Yet, there were those connected to the Church who questioned the authenticity of that statement. I say this humbly; I was the only Moderator of this Presbytery from that Church.

Fordie Ross - Moderator

  The only black Moderator, which makes me – this is history – the only black Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. The only black person to be so honored.

During your lifetime have black people been leaving the Presbytery?

No, they haven’t left because they had not been a part of it. They haven’t been a part because there are more black Baptists than in any denomination in the world. When I was Moderator, I went to every Presbyterian Church to preach.

While I was Moderator, the Head Person, I received an invitation to meet to with a special, elite group at the First Presbyterian Church. A day or two before going, something said to me, you are talking to an elite group, why not talk about the Rules and Regulations of the Presbyterian Church? I was introduced as the speaker for the day. I spoke for 20 minutes about what you do and what you don’t do as a Presbyterian. Then, all the sudden I stopped and asked a question. Who is the Moderator of the Presbytery? Lord, have Mercy. I was talking to the elite, educated group of white Presbyterians in the Church and not one of them, who all go to church every Sunday, not one of them knew I was the Moderator of the Church. I was the Head of Presbyterian Church. And they didn’t even know my name. When we talk about solving the problems of the world… I have encountered many. 

When I was young and on my way to college, I rode the freight train to Marshall Texas.  I started walking down the sidewalk to get to school. I was arrested and put in jail. As a black man I should have been walking in the street. Boy, I have been telling you.

Sometimes I wonder when you’ve experienced unfairness, how do you keep your heart open?

I do it because I know Christ would command that I do forgive. You will learn as we go along of my deep commitment to Christ.

I’ll tell you something strange but it is something that I do. My wife has passed on but every night I pray every night I pray. I say, “Honey, let us pray.” And she is right there. That’s my life.

She is with me every night when I pray and in my prayer I devote time to mentally listen to what she has to say. I have been working on a project for almost 3 years and I had been hoping it would consummate this year. Three days ago, I got word that it would consummate. She had worked in the sidelines on it. I would say to my wife all the time, don’t get weary we’re almost at the finishing line and those were comforting words to her. For a moment, I looked at the dark side because physically she will not see it. But something said to me, Rejoice! She does see all this.

You know, Fate is giving us the time to talk. And I rejoice.

I guess, my greatest public achievement got its birth at a meeting in the north end. A man walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Fordie, I want you to take over OEC (Operational Emergency Center).’ I thought, you’ve got to be joking. He told me, the job is yours. The decision has already been made. So, I went to the Director and he told me he was waiting for me. We had an agency, the largest of its kind in the State of Washington. I was its Director for 12.5 years in Seattle.

We had the largest United Way Agency dealing with the needs of people; we provided so much food. I have seen as many as 180 people in line for food. I had food for every one of those 180 people. I had one young man who came in everyday. One day I said to him, I don’t want to see you in two weeks, I want you to have a job. And before the two weeks were up, he stopped me to tell me he had a job.

We also had a ‘rent-a-kid’ program that was a thriller. People would rent kids to do yard work. It got them off the street, taught them about work and made them good and respectful citizens. We had an agency that everybody talked about.

My wife and I were chosen to represent Seattle at the Seattle Seafair parade in 1962. Then, 10 years ago the two of us were chosen as Delegates for the Parade of Renton, we were honored guests, for 10 years. They called a few days ago to tell me we would be honored guests again this year. They did not know my wife had passed. 

Do you want to tell me about your birthday party?

Five years ago, a member of the church said we should have a birthday party for you. 202 people from all over the State of Washington came for over three hours. Wherein I told them the history of my life and all of the many things I had done and accomplished.

When the newspaper closed, I had no job. I said to Thelma that I’m going downtown to look for a job. I went downtown to the National Cash Register Company. The owner told me, ‘I’m sorry, we have no openings.’ So, I went to a few other places and went home without a job. The next morning I told my wife I was going downtown to look for a job. Again, I went to the to National Cash Register Company. The manager again said, ‘I’m sorry, we have no openings.’ On the third day, I said, ‘Honey I’m going to look for a job downtown’ and I went to the National Cash Register Company. On the third day, the manager once again said, ‘I’m sorry, we have no openings.’ I went to other places and I found no work. On the fourth day, I went to the National Cash Register Company. The manager again said they had no openings.

I left and when to other places and I found no work. On the 5th day, the 6th day and the 7th day, when I went downtown where did I go?

To the National Cash Register Company.

And on the 8th day when I went into the National Cash Register Company the phone was ringing. By then, the manager knew my name and he said, ‘Fordie, answer the phone.’ I answered the phone and a lady wanted to buy two rolls of paper. I convinced that lady to buy a case of paper that cost over $500. And when I completed the sale, the lady told me that she wanted to meet me the next time she came in.

When I got off the phone the manager said, come to my office. He said very pointedly, you’ve been here many times and I’ve told you we have no openings. For the last time, I’m going to tell you again, we have no openings. He got up from his desk, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, I heard you make that sale. A job is yours.

Three years later, I was the chosen employee to go to the national meeting in Dayton Ohio. So, persistence pays off.

I have I learned if you are determined and you are consistent things pay off, if you don’t give up. I don’t give up. I don’t give up on life.

(Long pause) I’m skipping one of the main features of my life. I sold real estate in Seattle, one day a lady walked in and threw $500 dollars on the table and said, “Mr. Ross, I have a house that I want to buy. I can’t buy it because my husband won’t sign the papers and the government, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) won’t sell the property unless he signs the paper. You get me that house, Fordie.”

She left the money. I went home to think about it. Three weeks later, she came back to find out if I could get her that house. I asked her, ‘where do you work?’ She said she worked for Mrs. A. on Monday. And another lady’s name for Tuesday, and so on through the week.

I leaped to my feet and said, “You’re going to get that house.” When she left, I called the people for whom she worked and told them that on a certain day I wanted them to meet with me at the Federal Office. I asked them to each say how much they loved the woman who works for them because I’m going suggest that the rule be suspended to let her buy that house. We all met there and each one of those ladies spoke for her. I made my presentation and they suspended the rule. The lady bought that house. And I became the Salesman of the Year for that sale.

During all this time I am a member of Madrona Presbyterian Church.

You know that Dr. Martin Luther King came to Seattle. He was here one time. He was refused a place to speak in Seattle.  (voice rises in indignation). He had to speak in a boxing ring. 

That I did not know. I knew he spoke downtown.

He was refused the privilege to speak at the first Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle. Oh, that was common knowledge. Dr. King was only once in Seattle and could not preach in a Seattle Church (voice breaks). And isn’t that a sad thing?

It’s unbelievable from this vantage point.

Well, it shows that in many instances Seattle has been and is, to some degree, the same as Mississippi.

My wife and I decided to have a house of our own. So we would travel in our car everywhere looking for an empty lot. Finally one day we made a turn and this lot (near Jefferson Golf Course) was vacant.

Why was it vacant? Because where you’re sitting right now was a river.  The land where you are right now was a river. I said, maybe we can build a house there; let’s check it out. We got in touch with the owner downtown and he said, “Heck, I’ll sell it to you.” I found that the City would work with me to build a house here. The city worked with me to build a tank in my backyard that is half as big as the lot itself but they helped us build this house. Where my driveway is a bulldozer sank into the ground. It was beautiful to see how they got a bulldozer out of the ground.

Shortly after that we met a man in Kirkland Washington. He was a builder and he told us he’d like to build some houses for black people. I said, ‘I’ve got a lot and I’d like you to build my house. If I got you two customers would you give me a reduced rate?’ He said he certainly would. I got a greatly reduced rate on the construction of my house. I got him three customers some of them still live today on 32nd Ave in the Central Area down the street from Madrona Church. 

Then, after we moved over here (to Beacon Hill), we learned we were in a neighborhood where blacks did not live.

What year was that?

1958. A white man said, ‘the heck with all of this crap’ (redlining) and got a black family in a house that’s right on the corner on the 23rd. They were not there long. There is no black family in this whole area. You talk about discrimination. You talk about the barriers that exist! My wife is dead and there is not one person except the man who lives next door who even knows my wife is dead.

I don’t know anybody across the street and nobody across the street knows me. The only person who knows that my wife is dead is the mailman. He came as he did everyday and handed me my mail. I told him my wife is dead and that man stood there by that railing and cried. My wife loved the yard; she worked every day in the yard and over time, they became pals.

Since my wife died, I have had as many as 14 people in this room at one time since her death. I mentioned that I was the President of the Y’s Men’s Service Club. The
eight men from that club came here at 7:30 in the morning to take me to breakfast. And since my wife has passed, of all the people that I know in Seattle over all my years, only two white people have been inside to say, ‘I’m sorry.’

Boy, I tell you the world has a long way to go before we solve our problems.

(Long pause) The funniest thing about this house is after we built it; we didn’t have furniture. You can’t live in a house without furniture. I said, “Honey, let’s go to the furniture store.” She said, “We don’t have any money for furniture.” I said, “Let’s go and look anyway.”

She looked at furniture for the living room, dining room and kitchen. I told her to jot down her choices and she did so reluctantly. And a saleslady came over and wanted to know how we were going to pay for it. I sat down with her and I said to her, ‘Miss, I want to say there are three things I want you to know. The first is, I have no money. The second is, I have no money; the third is, I have no money. (laughs) That lady knew a wild man had arrived.

I asked her to call her manager. Reluctantly, she called him down. He came and I shook hands with him. She hands him the sheet of paper with all the furniture listed on it. He looks down at all those items full of joy. He said he was happy to meet me. I tell him, “Mr. I have three things to tell you: The first is, I have no money. The second is, I have no money. And the third is, I have no money but want delivered to my house the merchandise I have chosen. We bought our house on a FHA contract. The government is just beginning to sell houses to black people. The government has decided to make these houses possible and with all that, I think I’m worth the opportunity. I will pay my entire bill.” In three days, all the furniture was delivered. And I paid my bill. Yes siree!

So, I got the house and we are attending church at Madrona every Sunday. I became most active in the Presbytery.  I guess it’s hard for me to tell you the whole story about Madrona because my whole life has been inculcated in the life of the whole city rather than simply the Central Area. For example, I was Man of the Year for the YMCA in Seattle (he served with the Y’s Men’s Club as President for many years).

Y's Men's Service Club President

I’m active in the life of the Presbytery and worked with Daisy Dawson. She and I worked on keeping Madrona Church alive.  I wouldn’t say what I’m about to say because I have an undying love for Madrona Presbyterian Church but they wanted to close Madrona Church.  So, Daisy and I sat on the floor in the Secretary’s office collecting information to combat the efforts that were put forth to try and close the church.

Do you know that in Seattle there are any number of women who are Minsters only because of the Daisy’s leadership? With her membership in a nominating committee – the decision was made that we would get a female pastor. At that time (the 1970s) no woman could be come a Pastor of a Presbyterian Church. We hired a lady as the first lady in the Presbytery to become Pastor of the Madrona Church. Now there are several ladies who have become pastors in the Presbytery. That’s all due to Daisy Dawson’s work.   

(Fordie Ross was referred to this project by Pastor Mark Zimmerly of Madrona Presbyterian)

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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