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David Foote Rivers
July 18, 1859 - July 5, 1941

A 23-year-old Peabody Scholarship student at Nashville’s Roger Williams University at the time of his election, Rivers represented Fayette County as a Republican in the 43rd Tennessee General Assembly, 1883-1884. He was re-elected to the 44th General Assembly but would be driven out of Fayette County by racial violence and prohibited from serving his second term.

Birth, early years, and education

David Rivers was born in Montgomery, Alabama, to Edmonia Rivers, a free woman of color, and an unknown father. (Mark Rivers, named in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, was probably Edmonia’s father, although later census records suggest that he may have been her husband, even though he was 20 years older than she was. Whatever role he played in the family, he headed the household for many years, and David thought highly enough of him to name his second son Mark in his honor.) Young David, age 11, was listed in the 1870 census in blacksmith Mark Rivers’s Somerville, Tennessee, household, along with his two younger brothers (Walter and Willie) and an assortment of relatives and/or boarders. At that time Edmonia and her three children were the only residents of the household who were able to read; of the four, only David could not write.

In fact, according to family tradition, Rivers did not learn to write until he was 19, when he first attended high school, probably in Fayette County, where the family was living at the time of the 1880 census (which identified Mark Rivers as Edmonia’s husband and the father of the children). “Davy” had proved unexpectedly successful in his studies and was now teaching school. Within a very short time (1883) he would earn a Peabody Scholarship to Roger Williams University, where he graduated with honors.

Election to the Tennessee General Assembly

He was studying for a degree in theology at Roger Williams when he won election to the Tennessee legislature at the age of 23. A challenge to his eligibility to serve in the House, based on his occasional periods of absence from Fayette county to attend college, as well as having written an application for a teaching position in another county, was unsuccessful. Although a majority of the members of the Committee on Elections had voted against seating Rivers and declared that his opponent should be awarded the House seat, an impassioned minority report by H. Clay Jarvis, representing Hamblen, Hancock, and Hawkins counties, had a powerful impact on the voting. Quoting from a number of earlier court cases, Jarvis concluded, “based upon [a decision in an earlier court case], . . . the domicile which a person acquires at one place is considered as continuing until another is acquired at a different place. It is in proof that Mr. Rivers applied for a school at Goodlettsvill [sic], Tenn., his home in case he had succeeded: Had such been his intention, however, still the undersigned members of your committee are clearly of opinion that this intention would not cause him to lose his citizenship in Fayette county, for the reason that an actual removal never occurred.” The final vote about whether to seat Rivers was “Ayes 55, Noes 34.”

James E. Alexander, Assistant Clerk of the House of Representatives in the 43rd General Assembly, compiled a roster of House members that included a few items of information about each representative. “D. F. Rivers,” an unmarried resident of Somerville, Tennessee, was identified as having been born in Florence, Alabama. He was a Republican and a member of the Methodist church.

The family is forced to move

Although elected to the General Assembly for a second term in 1885-1886, Rivers was never permitted to take his seat, having been driven out of Fayette County by what his son Francis later referred to as "a large body of racially prejudiced whites." Fleeing to Nashville, which was a safer haven for African Americans, Rivers taught for a couple of years at Roger Williams University, where he had earned a degree in theology. He married Miss Silene Gale on June 28, 1888, in Nashville. According to Nashville city directories, Mrs. Silene G. Rivers, was a teacher at Roger Williams in 1889 [A young black woman by that name was a music teacher in Yazoo, Mississippi, in 1880; she was also listed as a music teacher in the 1891 Nashville city directory; and in 1920 she appeared in the Washington D. C., city directory as a piano teacher.] David Rivers himself was listed as “professor, Roger Williams University” in 1891. He was also preaching at the Fifth Ward Baptist Church in Clarksville during that period (one of the Rivers children was born in Kentucky in 1889, perhaps during David’s service in Clarksville) and then, in early 1893, moved his family to Kansas City, Kansas, where he had been hired as pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church. The family appears in an 1895 Kansas State Census, living in Ward 3, Kansas City, Wyandotte County: D. F. (35, M, M) is listed as a “Preacher”; Silena [sic] (33, F, M) is a “Housewife”; and the children are David S. (5, M, M, born in Kentucky), Mark E. (3, M, M, born in Tennessee), and Francis E. (1, M, M, born in Kansas).

A local newspaper article described David Rivers’ impact on the community in this way:

Since his location in our midst, he has made many warm friends and admirers by his honest, upright and gentlemanly behavior. His scholarly and forcible teachings have been productive of much good to the community. . . . There is no man in the city to whom we may point with greater pride than Rev. Rivers, there are none who have located here who hold a warmer spot in the hearts of the people of this community than he. There is no one who has a greater love for his race nor takes greater pride in its achievements. Despite the difficulties attendant the efforts of a man of African descent to gain renown, he has risen to a high point of esteem in the mist of both races in our city. With the expected detriments from the whites and the ever present antagonism of his own race, he has by the force of his character and brilliant intellect carved his way into the affection of the people, and once there has strengthened that affection by his noble qualities, being such that all who regard truth and consistency must admire. As an orator he has acknowledged ability and his standing among the people of the state is shown by the recent action of the convention held at Topeka he being chosen by acclamation, President of the State League. Were men of his character more abundant in the race the so-called negro problems would soon be a thing of the past and the recognition which we now clamor and rave for would willingly be extended to us. As a minister we find him in the front rank of intellectual clergymen, we find him advancing ideas for the help of present conditions of the race and their surroundings. He recognizes the fact that the old way of teaching by excitement and superstition is not adequate for this age, and time. He is ever ready to contribute from the wealth of his information truths, & advice for the benefit of all who may desire it and is con- stantly hardening his information by researches into the best books and journals pub- lished. His interest in the religious and moral thinking of the young is great and in- deed nothing is more pleasant to him than to witness or hear of some creditable showing made by the young members of the race. ( Kansas City American Citizen)

A brief article in the September 14, 1894, “Missionary Notes” section of the National Baptist World (Wichita, Kansas) concluded, “Rev. D. F. Rivers is a classic scholar, and an able pulpit orator. The Metropolitan Baptist church, Kansas City, Kansas, is one of the leading religious organizations in the West.” Another American Citizen article (September 3, 1897) commended Rivers for initiating a lecture bureau, “something never yet undertaken in colored literary circles of this city.”

A pastorate in Washington, D.C.

David F. Rivers was invited to Washington, D.C., in 1898 to accept a post as pastor of the Berean Baptist Church. Therefore, by the time of the 1900 census the Rivers family was living in Washington. There were now four children: sons David G. (11), Mark E. (8), Ellis F. (6, called Francis E. in the 1895 Kansas census and elsewhere), and daughter Eleanor (2).

A 1910 article lists Rivers as a featured speaker at a religious service at the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C. The school, founded in 1909 by Nannie Helen Burroughs, was one of the first institutions of higher learning created exclusively for African American women. Its original goal was to provide vocational training for its students. Today the school, renamed for its founder after her death in 1961, is a co-educational elementary school. Its Trades Hall, built in 1927-1928, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

A mysterious entry appeared in The New York Age on June 14, 1914: listed among the June 2 graduates of Arkansas Baptist College, Little Rock, was Silene Gale Rivers. It seems unlikely that Silene would have left her family to return to school, so perhaps this was a younger relative named in her honor.

Census takers were not always accurate in recording church information. The 1900 census listed Rivers as a “Babtist” minister; the 1910 census, in which the family lived in a rented house at 313 T Street NW, called him a “clergyman.” There was no 1920 entry, but in 1930, he was listed as “Clergyman, Presbyterian,” obviously an error, since we know he served the Berean Baptist Church for more than 40 years, until his death in 1941. The 1930 census also took note of the fact that the Rivers family owned both their home and a radio set! Their married daughter, Eleanor Rivers Wheatland, was living in her parents’ household that year and working as a public school teacher.

A few of Rivers’ sermons and funeral orations have survived, and they show him to be an eloquent, even poetic, speaker. One such oration opened,

My Friends, again we are face to face with the great mystery that shrouds the world. Over the desert of death the sphinx gazes forever, but never speaks. Almost in the very May of life another heart has ceased to beat. Night has fallen upon noon. A heart breaks, a leaf falls in the far forest, a babe is born, and the grand old world sweeps on, and we are all swept along with it. Sister Francis Lofties, having embarked on life’s ocean, has completed her journey and reached the silent haven that all the dead have reached and where the voyage of every life shall end. We her friends and loved ones, who even now are hastening after her, are met to do the last sad rite that man may do for man – to speak a few words of kindness and sympathy, love and hope, and then lay her mortal remains into the place of eternal rest and peace. (Rivers: Lofties)

Another graceful funeral sermon featured this passage:

The pale white horse, symbolic of death, strikes no terror to the person who so conducts his life as to be prepared to meet death, and paradoxically conquers death by being submissively resigned to the transmutation which clothes him with life eternal. Nothing in God’s vast universe exists in absoluteness, but all things stand in relation: therefore, death has its correlative, life. What is life? It comes and goes about us. We inspect it as we may. We form theories about it. We dogmatize about it. We dream about it. But we know not what it is. The nearest we can come to defining it is to say that it is one of the forces of nature, never perishing, because nothing can perish, but capable of infinite and endless transmutation. (Rivers: Caney)

A third example shows a stern uprightness that is revelatory of Rivers’s own character:

In the vale between the lofty peaks of two eternities, we know we exist for a few short years in time; but what of our existence beyond the grave? It is no harder to conceive the continuance of our conscious existence, beyond the [life] clothed in some sort of substance, beyond the grave, than to conceive the beginning of our existence, when we did not exist. Hence, based upon our knowledge, acquired by inheritance, observation, experience and reflection, and with the passions of faith, hope, and love ever burning in our bosoms, we may say that Brother Muse is an immortal complex idea, a blessed memory, and lingering strains of music. Circumstances are the seeds of good and evil and men are the soil in which they grow. When we come into this world we find ourselves bounded on all sides by forces which hold us almost passive, and by reacting with the forces which constitute our personal identity upon our environing forces and keeping up the corres- pondence of equilibrium of action between the forces inside and outside of us, through the years we live, we build ourselves into the men we are recognized to be. Thus did Bro. Muse. He was not a perfect being, and whoever thinks he is perfect in this world, I am afraid deceives himself. We are always attaining, but never attain the goal of perfection. (Rivers: Muse)

By 1914 David Rivers was such a beloved member of his church community, the congregation honored him with a huge reception on the sixteenth anniversary of his pastorate there. The program included a series of short speeches and testimonials, interspersed with music selections. The Washington Bee ran an article about the reception with a glowing tribute to Rivers:

No man is better liked or appreciated. He is regarded a model of perfection as a Pastor. He is a frank and practical speaker, free from deception and demagogery [sic], highly moral in his department and conduct.”

Political activity

A peculiar 1915 article in the Washington Bee described David Rivers as “the most conservative minister in this city,” as well as “a most liberal man in every thing.” The article, entitled “Fearless Defender” dealt with the creation of the Belgian Committee, a relief organization designed to provide food to starving Belgian citizens. Tiny Belgium, able to grow enough food for only about 25% of its needs, had been invaded in 1914 by Imperial Germany, whose leaders immediately seized all the available food for their own troops. International relief groups, largely under the leadership of President Herbert Hoover, were eventually able to bring in and distribute food to hungry Belgian citizens without interference from the Germans, but opponents to the relief effort claimed that taking pressure off Germany to provide sufficient food was merely prolonging the war. The article went on to describe Rivers as “one of the most fearless preachers in the United States,” and, “As a humanitarian, he is beyond all doubt the most sympathetic.”

The Berean Baptist Church celebrates its anniversary

The Berean Baptist Church was formed in 1877 by 22 members of the 19th Street Baptist Church. The name of the church was selected from Acts 17:11-12: “(10) And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. (11) These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” In 1920 the church’s forty-third anniversary was celebrated by the burning of the mortgage and the retiring of the church debt. In 1927 the church celebrated its 50th anniversary. The highlight of the celebration was a powerful sermon by David F. Rivers. Here are a few selected passages:

When man first looked out of the windows of his soul he found all things created to his hands. the sun was shining, the firmament was filled with the meadows of stars, the worlds were revolving in their orbits, the moon was wooing the ocean tides, and the earth was yielding abundant fruit for the growth and development of all living organisms.

Man can create nothing; not an element, a compound, nor a germ of life; not a blade of grass, a grain of sand, nor a fibre of wood. He can only separate and combine, mould, shape and transform what is given to him. We are all receivers. We give to others what was first given to us.

Fifty years ago, twenty-two baptized believers, inspired by a lofty purpose and guided by the hand of destiny, formed themselves into an organization to be known thereafter as the Berean Baptist Church. They set for themselves a goal. With aims worthy, aspirations high, purposes steadfast, and gathering strength and energy from the reaction of the sacrifices they made and zeal and enthusiasm with which they labored to attain their goal, they laid the foundation of the church. But ere they had advanced far with its superstructure and reaped the results of their work, the bell rang, the curtain dropped and the final act in which they had played their parts so nobly and well ended; and they stepped off the stage of activity and passed from labor to reward. Their successors fell heir to the unfinished work of the founders, upon which the successors continued to build until their life’s tasks, also, were completed. Today, we are building upon the unfinished work of the founders, and other members of the church, who have died in the interim. We felicitate them because what they have done is great. We thank them because what they have done is good. But that the good may live, it must be passed on.

To the founders and other members who have passed into the Great beyond, we are in debt. The past is gone and gone forever. The debt we owe we can not pay to the past; we must pay it to the future. How shall we do it? It is possible for us to love each other, to love our church, attend its services, speak a word in its defense; to be united in essentials, grant liberty in non-essentials; to magnify virtues, and look for the good in men; to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace; to be constant and steadfast in noblest endeavors; to look forward on life calmly, trust superbly, and thereby unfold the eternal possibilities which God has wrapped up in the church, that it may stand as a beacon light radiating good influences into the world, casting beams of light on life’s true pathway, and shedding benedictions on mankind. If we do these things we shall have canceled our indebtedness to the past.

The Rivers children also achieved success

Most of the Rivers children spent their adult lives in New York. Son Francis E. was a particularly outstanding individual. A 1943 Time magazine article described him as “a Yale Phi Beta Kappa, a Columbia L.L.B., a first lieutenant in World War I’s A.E.F., now an assistant district attorney of the State of New York.” He was also a member of the New York General Assembly, was a member of Thomas E. Dewey’s district attorney staff, and was the first black Justice of the City Court of New York; his name appears in The African American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Francis E. Rivers died in 1975 at the age of 82. Two of his siblings also died in New York: Mark in 1969, and Eleanor in 1988, at the age of 90.

David Foote Rivers, renowned author of many religious and philosophical tracts, who led an extraordinary life and fathered a remarkable family, died in Washington, D.C., on July 5, 1941. He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, burial place also of Mary Church Terrell and Dr. Carter G. Woodson.                                                                                                                                              KBL 11/072012

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