The Color and Character of AA

Editor’s Note: Today’s tribute to the work of AA Historian Glenn C.  comes from leading recovery historian William L. (“Bill”) White, Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health Systems. Readers of Points will recognize Bill as the author of the definitive history of recovery in the U.S., Slaying the Dragon, and the more recent Recovery Rising: A Retrospective of Addiction Treatment and Recovery Advocacy (see the Points interviews on them here and here!) among many, many other books and articles. For the past 25 years, his work has focused on mapping the pathways, styles, and stages of long-term addiction recovery, with attention to both recovering people and the industries and groups that serve them. Bill’s collected papers are at

Bill White, Chestnut Health Systems

An early criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was that its program of recovery was drawn primarily from the collective experiences of white men and thus unsuitable for people of color.  Such declarations have since been challenged by surveys within communities of color indicating AA as one of the preferred choices for people seeking help with alcohol problems, recent surveys of AA membership revealing significant (11-15%) representation of non-White ethnic minorities, and studies of treatment linkage to AA indicating that people of color are as likely, or more likely, than Whites to participate in AA following professional treatment. Also of note are the growth of AA meetings within communities of color and the cultural adaptation of AA’s Twelve Step program within these communities (also see Here and Here). What has until recently been lacking is a definitive history of the racial and ethnic diversification of AA, including first-hand accounts of how the first non-White men and women experienced AA and attracted increasing numbers of people of color to AA’s program of alcoholism recovery.

Color AAGlenn C.’s just-published Heroes of Early Black AA marks a major step in filling this void. His well-researched text documents the founding of the first Black groups in AA in 1945 (St. Louis-AA-1 Group, Chicago-Evans Avenue Group, and Washington D.C.-Washington Colored Group later rechristened The Cosmopolitan Group) and details the experiences of early Black AA members drawn from interviews and taped AA talks with five key figures (Bill Williams, Jimmy Miller, Harold Brown, Dr. James C. Scott, Jr., and John Shaifer). Heroes of Early Black AA closes with the story of Joe McQuany, widely known for his role in the Joe and Charlie Tapes (Big Book Study Guide) that are revered by many within the AA fellowship.

Three qualities distinguish Heroes of Early Black AA.  First, it vividly depicts the larger social context within which Black AA groups emerged in the mid-1940s and in which the subsequent racial integration of AA unfolded. Glenn C. skillfully places the racial struggles and the process of racial reconciliation within AA within the larger social context of American society during these same periods. The best and worst of what occurred within AA is contextualized within the best and worst that was occurring in the larger culture. Such context is crucial in understanding both the resistance and the progress in racially integrating AA. Within this contrast, AA is given a mixed grade: “not as good as it ought be, but nevertheless much better than society as a whole.”

Second, the opportunity to hear the voices of these Black men and women who first broke racial barriers within AA is an emotionally moving privilege. Their poignant stories of recovery and the relationships they built across the racial divide within AA are among the great contributions of the book. Particularly striking are the distinct yet shared experiences of people whose backgrounds ranged from physician to tavern patron to con man. Glenn C.’s own understanding of alcoholism and alcoholism recovery within AA permeates this book but does not get in the way of letting his central protagonists tell their own stories.

Third, Heroes of Early Black AA details the process of how local AA meetings went from banning Blacks, limiting their attendance to open meetings, allowing attendance as “observers,” designating certain meetings as “interracial,” to further lowering and then losing such barriers, including the frequent exchange of speakers between predominately White and Black AA groups.  That process of change is described as follows: “It was done by attacking the issues at the fundamental spiritual level, and by insisting that spiritual principles of the program had to take preponderance over personalities, and personal likes and dislikes, and politics, and blind cultural taboos. It also took a handful of people, both black and white, who had astonishing courage, and a willingness to speak lovingly, but boldly and honestly, when basic spiritual principles were at stake” (p. 164). What local AA leaders on both sides of the racial divide proclaimed was that the fear and hostility that divided Black and White AA members had no place in a program like AA.

Most touching were the stories of personal transformation, e.g., an AA members who had once resisted AA meeting attendance by Blacks later attending the funeral of a Black AA member, with tears running down his face as he talked about what the deceased member had meant to his recovery.  I have heard it said that the most segregated place and hour in America is Sunday morning church services; today, the most integrated setting in America may well be the AA meetings held the night before in those same churches.

welcome_to_arkansas_by_fakingmyownsuicideThe story of Joe McQuany and his collaborative relationship with Charles Parmley is a perfect point of closure for the larger story told in Heroes of Early Black AA.  Here were two men, a Black man and a White man, both AA members in the South, who found common ground in their study of the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous. Joe was the first Black members of AA in Arkansas and entered AA only a few years after the violent resistance to forced school integration in Little Rock. Joe was first allowed to attend AA meetings with the requirements that he not arrive early or stay late to socialize and not drink any of the coffee. As Joe would say, “Little Rock was no place for a black man to be looking for help in 1962.” But Joe survived such early insults to get help within AA, and his subsequent friendship and study with Charlie resulted in years of collaboration in producing the best know study guide to what has affectionately become known as AA’s Big Book.  Glenn C. describes the unique quality that Joe brought to his study of the Big Book.

Joe McQuany developed a style of spirituality which was built not upon the spirit of fellowship, but upon studying history and telling the stories of courageous historical figures who were cast in the role of pioneers, innovators, and lone wolves who had to make it with minimum help from others—a method especially appropriate for those who were, marginalized, socially excluded, and psychologically isolated within the surrounding culture (p. 392). One of the described high points within Joe’s years of service within AA was recounting of a 1977 trip to Lawton, Oklahoma to facilitate one of their Big Book Study meetings. Joe and an ailing Charlie, Black and White friends and collaborators, picked up Tony V., an AA member of Mexican descent, only to arrive at the meeting to find seating in the first row members from the Anadarko Indian Reservation. It had been a long journey (literally and figuratively) but there was realization at that moment that AA had become a coat of many colors. One can imagine Joe smiling in the knowledge that he had been a link in that chain of progress.

Heroes of Early Black AA joins a growing list of texts (e.g., Women Pioneers in 12 Step Recovery, Women in Alcoholics Anonymous, The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, A History of Agnostics in AA)  describing the increased diversity of AA membership and the ever-expanding varieties of AA experience. Glenn C. has made numerous contributions to the study of AA via his published books and articles, oversight of the AA History Lovers online group, creation of the Hindsfoot Foundation, and his mentorship of innumerable people interested in the history of AA. Heroes of Early Black AA is one of his most important and inspiring of these contributions.


Rich Dubiel Meets Glenn C.

Rich Dubiel

Editor’s Note: Today we present the second installation in our roundtable series celebrating the work of AA Historian Glenn C. Richard Dubiel, formerly Professor of Communications at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, was an early beneficiary of Glenn’s work with Hindsfoot Press, which published his insightful “Sober Sleuths: Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke” in 1999. Here he describes the journey– undertaken with Glenn’s help– towards his important history The Road to Fellowship: The Role of the Emmanuel Movement and the Jacoby Club in the Development of Alcoholics Anonymous (iUniverse, 2004).

To talk about my relationship with Glenn C. requires some exposition that will appear a bit egocentric. But, truth be told, it was my book, or rather a tattered manuscript back then, that brought me to the Hindsfoot Foundation and, of course, Glenn.

The book, , wasn’t really my idea either. At one time, like when I was nine or ten, I wanted to be a pal with Roy Rogers, maybe Gene Autry. I was torn. But I wound up being an associate professor of communication, pursuing the books and files of the Pittman Archives in Center City, Minnesota. That of course is Hazelden. I was honored as the first academic researcher to use the archives (July-August 1995) courtesy of a development grant from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

I was in search of a topic for a monograph, or at least a couple of academic articles. I knew about alcoholism and Hazelden. I’ll leave it at that. Moments of grace do happen.

The first just such moment occurred when I met Bill Pittman in the archives. We chatted informally. He asked me if I would be interested in working in an area that could surely lead to a book. A book? You betcha. I was soon back in my department in a meeting with my colleagues, hoping that my sabbatical could take place during the summer of 1997. In the meantime I began my research on the influences on the early AA thinkers. Bill sent me a couple of boxes of books to get me started. Guided by Ernie Kurtz’s Not-God, I read in and around the history of AA, discovering new names.

During the summer of 1996 I made a trip to Boston, funded by the Hazelden Foundation. Most of work was done in the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Episcopal Church Archives, Diocese of Boston. The experience, especially in the Mass Historical Society, was one of hushed silence, wearing white linen gloves when handling papers, and organizing material that was being photocopied. I mailed a complete manuscript to Bill Pittman on August 15, 1997. Now a different type of task unfolded, one that would require the encouragement, friendship, expertise and professional know-how of Glenn.

The manuscript sat until spring 1998 when Bill Pittman informed me that new material on Rowland Hazard III at the Rhode Island Historical Society would make a valuable and relevant addition to the book. I spent a week that summer gathering and organizing material, and in the fall mailed the new chapter on Rowland Hazard to Hazelden.

No word regarding the fate of the manuscript. A sense doom closes in. I expressed my concern to a few prominent AA scholars. None less than Ernest Kurtz advised me to develop some options. Hazelden’s support was instrumental in the eventual creation of the actual book; I am grateful to them and certainly to Bill Pittman. (Hazelden currently has my research notes and photocopied archival material in their archives. I am likewise grateful for this.) To this day I am not sure what happened their; perhaps a change in management philosophy?

This was a dark period. My manuscript was read by a university press, and received a positive evaluation but one that concluded with “sorry.” It was understandable given the then (and now) publishing environment. My book was certainly specialized and wasn’t going to generate the revenue that university presses needed. I figured I could simply post the manuscript in cyberspace and that would be that, perhaps as a link on my university webpage. I more or less lost interest.

During this period I began work on an AA-related paper: “Sober Sleuths…”, comparing the crime fiction detective heroes of Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. Things looked bleak except that Bill White and Ernie Kurtz were in my corner and wanted to see my book published. They paved the way for me to seek a solution to the problem: The Hindsfoot Foundation, and, of course, Glenn C.

I got in touch with Glenn and during 2003 letters, papers, computer discs and the like flew back and forth. Glenn received my material and I thought it was all but done. Not so. There was all the permission business, an index, and the need for some
punching up here and there. Plus, I admit to being a person who needs a push now and then. Glenn’s sincere interest and drive kept me going. But, truthfully, it was he who did most of the driving and reading and rewriting, additions and deletions, that needed to be done.

dubiel cover
The Long & Winding “Road”

Even the earliest emails from Glenn, say March 2003, were filled with an interest in my work, not only this book, and my thoughts on AA. Over the distance, via the internet, I had made a colleague and true friend. Though we had never met, not spoken to each other, we developed a true scholarly camaraderie, dare I say a kinship. The production of The Road to Fellowship moved quickly. I was guided through all the legal and technical consideration by Glenn, who sensed my own fatigue and was a forgiving mentor. The publication date was 2004.

After that, I was reading in other areas of Christian theology and would occasionally have a question. One example was my puzzlement with various interpretations of atonement. A more prosaic person might have thrown a few references at me, perhaps a comment or two, and have sent me on my way. But not Glenn. I still have pages of his downloaded emails, explaining not only atonement but any other idea or thought that I was having. He knew of my dissertation on Paul Tillich and the graduate work I had done at Drew University as part of my Ph.D. program at Purdue. Perhaps those two factors linked us and provided the basis for our scholarly friendship. And it has continued. That continuation exists in that his The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program… and God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays sit on my nightstand. My scholarly and spiritual journey continues as a gift of my Higher Power, but it has been in no small way guided by this truly magnanimous man. I am grateful to have had the help and friendship of Glenn.

Inspiration Comes in Many Forms

AA History as Opposed to AA Myth

The first in our series of testimonials to the work of AA Historian Glenn C. comes from Art. S., who came into AA in the mid-1980s. A voracious reader of AA literature from his earliest days in the fellowship, he became an AA historian in 2001, when he took up the position of Archivist for his home group in North Texas.  In this role, his background in the tech industry and skill with data analysis were formative. Working in dialogue with Glenn C. as he began Hindsfoot Press and founded the AA History Lovers listserv, Art has made major empirical contributions to the national history of AA as represented on the Internet, helping to quash myths and rumors about the fellowship’s origins and growth. His magisterial “Narrative Timeline of AA History” is a sterling example of the ways in which digital publication has brought powerful tools for analysis and publication to people outside of the academy.– Trysh Travis

My testimonial to Glenn is primarily devoted to digital material he authored and the use of the web for the propagation of AA history as opposed to myth. He is a prolific author and quite skilled in digital archiving.

I was introduced to Glenn through “digital channels” around fifteen years ago. It occurred through the web-based AA history special interest group “AAHistoryBuffs” which later became “AAHistoryLovers.” Nancy Olson, an accomplished historian, and close friend of Glenn, started both special interest groups. Glenn was one of the premier historians who actively participated, along with Ernie Kurtz and William White. Glenn’s solid academic standards, and clarity in writing, provided a wonderful example to emulate.

I corresponded mainly through email with both Nancy and Glenn who inherited responsibility for managing AAHistoryLovers when Nancy became ill and passed away in 2005. Glenn has composed a wonderful history of AAHistoryLovers and a touching memorial to Nancy O. He recently has withdrawn from moderating AAHistoryLovers but over the years has provided a legacy example of academic discipline regarding the material posted and the type of commentary deemed appropriate.

Glenn  also administers a first rate digital repository at It is a rich collection of historical religious and spiritual writings together with biographical material on many historical names in AA history, such as Richmond Walker, Rev Ralph Pfau and Father Edward Dowling. Many of his published works are noted and explained on the website together with a rich assortment of AA history and memorabilia images and documents.

I enjoyed a wonderful research experience with Glenn collaborating, via email, with him in Indiana and Tom E. in New York. It resulted in an academically disciplined paper addressing AA recovery outcome rates and the myths and errors circulating at the time that AA has only achieved a 5% to 10% success rate. The latest version was released in 2008.

I first personally met Glenn at the 2010 AA International Convention in San Antonio. Subsequently, the opportunity to spend more personal time with him occurred over the course of three “long weekend” AA History Symposium events held at the Mago Retreat Center in Sedona AR in 2015, 2016 and 2017. A friendship flourished that I treasure highly today.

AA History Symposium, Sedona Mago 2016

As a prolific author of books and articles focused on religion, spirituality and AA History writings, Glenn is both diverse in subject matter and quite generous with the distribution of complimentary copies of many of his works in digital form. His latest contemporary works on Father Dowling, the history of black AA members and groups, plus an exposition on how the earliest AA meeting were conducted, provide a rich source of material that can be found nowhere else.

In my judgement Glenn is one of the top AA historians today.



Happy (AA Historical) New Year: Roundtable on the Work of Glenn C.

Glenn C., 2016

With a nod to everyone who’s decided to abstain from alcohol in the new year, Points is kicking off 2018 with a tribute to one of Alcoholics Anonymous’s most talented historians, Glenn C., founder of the Hindsfoot Press (1993) and long-time moderator of the AA History Lovers listserv (fd. 2002). I first “met” Glenn through the listserv while working on my book about the history of 12-step recovery in the early 2000s.  In what was at that time a veritable wild west of self-published print and online AA discourse, it was invaluable to have someone like Glenn as a guide: a professor of History with a PhD from Oxford as well as a Divinity degree, with a long history of publishing about AA (and moderating AA history disputes!). His mentoring was unfailingly graceful and insightful.

Nearly twenty years later, I had the honor of presenting with him at the Sedona Mago AA History Symposium in the spring of 2017. Nearly every speaker at Sedona noted their personal debt to Glenn as well as to the intellectual community of the History Lovers listserv and to the invaluable resources made available by Hindsfoot. The moment seemed right to make that sense of gratitude public. Over the next few Thursdays, Points will present commentaries on Glenn’s work and influence from AA Historians Art S., Richard Dubiel, Bill White, and Jackie B. Glenn will then comment on their comments, and after that, who knows what will happen.

Connect with ADHS at AHA 2018 in Washington, D.C.!

Today, historians begin descending upon wintry Washington, D.C., for the 2018 meeting of the American Historical Association. AHA is the largest annual gathering for such professionals and their affiliated societies. Among those represented again this year is the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, with two panels of original research and one roundtable discussion. The date, times, and location of those sessions are listed below. Points readers (and their interested friends!) are invited to meet historians active in the field and learn about their most recent projects. We hope to see you there!

Session 1: Transgressive Marijuana: Cultivating, Performing, and Regulating the Cannabis Culture in the 20th Century

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Roosevelt Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)Read More »

Travel as Research: A Historian’s Recent Trip to Huautla de Jiménez, Mexico

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was contributed by David Korostyshevsky, a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota’s History of Science, Technology, and Medicine program. His research focuses on post-Enlightment discourses of intoxication and addiction in the Atlantic world. Contact him at


Oaxaca City (all photos courtesy of the author)

As historians, we are used to traveling to attend academic conferences, visit libraries, and study in archives. But sometimes, we ought to travel just to see the places about which we are writing. I learned firsthand about how fruitful the unexpected results of such a trip can be earlier this year, when I traveled to Mexico City, Oaxaca City, and Huautla de Jiménez. Such travel yields sources and context otherwise inaccessible to the historian.

In 1957, Robert Gordon Wasson, a vice-president at JP Morgan, published an article in Life Magazine in which he described his discovery of and experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mexico. He found these mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez, a small village in the northern mountains of Oaxaca inhabited by indigenous Mazatec people. After several trips in the early 1950s, he was finally invited to participate in a ceremony led by a curandera María Sabina. His Mexican mushroom trip made a profound impression on him. Publishing extraordinary descriptions of it in Life, Wasson became an unwitting, and later, reluctant, stimulus for a nascent psychedelic counterculture in the twentieth century.Read More »