Major Wade Reddick
In December 1918, black ministers in Americus responded to accusations leveled against them. On the surface, the accusation was about the sanitary conditions of their religious spaces. At another level, it reflected an ongoing debate about church and local government. As influenza swept through the city that fall and winter, closing churches was a controversial decision. In October, Mayor L.G. Council, at the request of Commissioner of Health, B.F. Bond, required citizens to wear masks and closed the schools. By December, the health board limited church services to a maximum of one hour. This rule had been enacted by Bond for all churches in the area, both black and white, in an attempt to limit the spread of influenza. There were, however some white ministers and churchgoers who claimed that the highest risk of infections came from the black churches because, they said, those meetings were longer. Bond himself told the white ministers that he was putting the rule in place primarily because of the fact that “one of the chief reasons for limiting the churches to a single service of one hour was the fact that a real menace existed in the negro churches where meeting from three to five hours on Sunday nights are common, and that the board could not discriminate between the races in the matter of prohibiting religious gatherings.”
The next day, in a rare public defiance of white leadership, black ministers responded in the Americus Times Recorder. Bond’s statement, the ministers said, and the blame placed on the black churches, was unjust: “The statement is vicious in that it saddles upon the whole church going negro population the faults of a part, and is offered as an excuse for working an undue hardship upon the white churches of the city.” The ministers went on to explain that their meetings had already been shortened, their buildings were clean, well-ventilated and not conducive to the spread of disease. “[I]n defense of our congregations," the ministers asserted, "we respectfully state that the above quotation does not apply in our case.” The statement was signed by four black pastors. The first name on the list, and likely the primary author of the statement, was “M. W. Reddick, Pastor, the Bethesda Baptist Church.”
Americus Times-Recorder, December 17, 1918
Reverend Major Wade Reddick was a prominent member of the black community in Americus in 1918. Born into farm life in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1868 he was the fourth of 15 children. He spent much of his youth doing manual labor jobs on his father’s farm, and he received only five months of formal education before he was 20 years old. In place of schooling, Reddick had a practical education in farming. He learned, according to the Baptist Home Mission Monthly, “to do everything from ditching and ‘plowing an ox’ to driving a harvester.” In 1888, at the age of 21, he entered school at Morehouse College in Atlanta where he went through high school and college before graduating in 1897.
Major Wade Reddick, ca. 1934, Levi and Jewell Terrill Collections, Atlanta University
Later that year, he moved to Americus where he revived the Americus Institute, a school that belonged to the Southwestern Colored Baptist Association. When Reddick arrived in Americus, the school had only two teachers, a two-room building, and two acres of land. By 1914, Reddick had grown the school to include 14 teachers, seven buildings, and seven acres of land—a value of $40,000. While in charge of the school he worked rigorously to bring it to a high level of organization and performance. According to the Baptist Home Monthly Magazine, “Mr. Reddick is a bible student and is deeply impressed with the value of moral training.” He sought out graduates from the Spelman teaching course. “Of the eight teachers on the Institute, seven have had professional training and six are graduates from the Spelman training school. This ensures the very best of classroom work and high standards of scholarship and character.”
Bethesda Baptist Church, 1917, Americus Times-Recorder
By 1915 he was the President of the Georgia Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and was the first president of the new General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia. An article in Crisis Magazine published in 1915 called him “A Peace Maker,” because at the time of publication he had just orchestrated a meeting of two separate colored Baptist conventions which had maintained a separate existence for 22 years. Mostly due to his efforts, it said, “these two bodies representing more than 300,000 Negroes were united into one.” According to one onlooker, “I have not seen such yielding on points great and small for the sake of harmony for a long time and I consider it most significant.”
Major Wade Reddick served as leader in his community at a time when “race relations had reached a nadir” after “blacks had lost what few gains they had made during Reconstruction.” The black community was hit hard during the 1918 flu pandemic, and African Americans suffered higher death rates during disease outbreaks than whites in the American South because of poverty and unequal access to medical care. The actions taken by Bond and the response by Reddick and other black ministers in Americus during influenza’s high water mark demonstrate the complex and strained relationship of the two segregated communities in this small town in the Deep South.