Wineka column: Baraca Philathea movement grew strong in Salisbury
Every now and then, Charlie Peacock will call, visit the newsroom or invite me to lunch to offer up some interesting things from Salisbury’s past.
The other day he stopped by my desk with information about Baraca Philathea, a Sunday School movement that spread across the United States over the first half of the 20th century.
For many years as a young adult, Peacock belonged to a local class.
I must say, I had never heard of Baraca Philathea. Did it have something to do with President Obama?
Peacock left me a book on the history of this Protestant-based movement, and the more I skimmed over the pages, the more I realized how strong it had been in Salisbury and North Carolina.
Think of the church having a Jaycees branch of men and women ó Baraca, the men; Philathea, the women ó and you get an idea of what it was.
It started out trying to bring young people, ages 16 to 25, back to the church. Evangelism was at its heart, but it also blended in things such as monthly socials, banquets, sporting events and concerts as ways of reconnecting adults back to the church and community.
The Baraca and/or Philathea classes met as part of their local churches’ Sunday School program and held their other activities during the week.
Members earned “points” by attending Sunday School, the Sunday morning and evening worship services and bringing a Bible to class.
Until 1911, Philathea remained independent of Baraca. The World Wide Baraca Philathea Union was then formed and, at its height, a million people were part of it.
Among the more noted Salisburians involved in state and international Baraca Philathea activities were B.V. and Daisy Hedrick, Alex Smoot and A.B. Saleeby.
B.V Hedrick and Daisy, his wife, served independently of each other as worldwide presidents. The history Peacock gave me devotes considerable space to their work for the organization.
A former Salisbury mayor and prominent businessman, Hedrick donated significant money and time to Baraca Philathea’s purchase of the Tower House, its longtime headquarters near Mount Vernon, Va., in 1941.
Smoot, who died in 1936, organized one of the strongest Baraca Sunday School classes in the country at Salisbury’s First United Methodist Church, and the class eventually was named the Smoot Baraca class in his honor.
The Smoot “Baracans” often won state awards for membership and organizing the most new classes.
Salisbury was host to several state Baraca Philathea conventions and even the worldwide convention in 1944, as Hedrick was stepping down as president. The gatherings sometimes brought more than a thousand people to Salisbury.
In 1908, during the first worldwide convention in Asheville, Baraca founder Marshall Hudson praised Rowan County for increasing Sunday School attendance by 75 percent and gave Rowan a prize for having organized more classes than any other county in the nation.
During the 1935 international convention in Louisville, Ky., President Herbert Hoover presented an American flag to Rowan County for organizing more classes than any other county in the South.
Saleeby proved to be one of the most tireless workers for Baraca Philathea, and I became intrigued by his overall story as I looked through an old file at the Post.
I came across the text of a radio address he made on Salisbury’s WSTP in 1942, as part of a patriotic message to all Salisburians during the early part of World War II.
Born in Mount Lebanon, Syria, in 1878, Saleeby said he left the Holy Land in 1897 and ended up in the Promised Land, the United States. He told of an eight-day, sometimes harrowing ocean journey from England to New York on a steamer with 500 people.
“When we reached New York and I saw the Statue of Liberty, I said, ‘This is the Promised Land, this is my country.’ ”
Later, he said, “If you could look into my heart, you would find it wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.”
Saleeby lived in Rutland, Vt., for a year and Danville, Va., for five years before settling in Salisbury. He operated the Saleeby Candy Kitchen on the Square, where I think Pottery 101 is now located.
He later opened the Saleeby Distributing Co. next to the railroad tracks at 310 E. Council St. It became a well-known and successful wholesale distributor of fruits and vegetables.
But that only scratches the surface of Saleeby’s life. Yellowed newspaper clips kept tumbling out of the archives.
“Saleeby leaves for Washington” told of his going to attend a 1945 banquet in honor of the first Lebanon envoy in the United States.
“A.B. Saleeby feted in N.Y.” said he was the honored guest at the Hotel Seville as the Saleeby families of New York City and Brooklyn gathered in 1946.
“Convention speaker” included his picture and a note that Saleeby was going to address the international Baraca Philathea convention in Salisbury at 2:30 p.m. on July 18, 1944.
Another story noted his lead role when Salisbury was host in July 1938 to the Lebanon Syrian American Association.
“Local Syrian is highly honored” was the headline on a 1927 story describing how President Calvin Coolidge presented Saleeby with the Patriotic Service Medal from the U.S. Flag Association.
The president of Lebanon once gave Saleeby the Lebanese Medal of Merit for all of his efforts in trying to help that country. He also was said to be acquainted with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and friends to William Jennings Bryan and Frank P. Graham.
Saleeby died in 1954. He had been a member of the Smoot Baraca Class at First United Methodist since 1904 and was a past N.C. president of the Baracans (1934-36).
“He was a tireless traveler in the interest of the Sunday School movement and would go hundreds of miles to address a class,” his Post obituary said. “He was known to be an eloquent speaker with an excellent sense of humor.”
The thing that fascinated Peacock about Saleeby was that he once was appointed U.S. ambassador to Syria but never got to serve.
At the time, Turkey controlled Syria, and the Turks objected to Saleeby’s appointment because he was a Syrian native. The United States had to withdraw his name.
From all the stuff I’ve now read about Saleeby, everybody in Salisbury seemed to know him.
Thanks to Charlie Peacock and Baraca Philathea, I can say the same.