Reply to Bill White, “The Color and Character of AA”

Editor’s note: Today Glenn C. responds to Bill White’s discussion of his book about the varieties of AA experience across the color line. Next up: his thoughts on the recovery plays of Jackie B.

slayingWilliam L. White is the author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (orig. pub. 1998, 2nd ed. 2014), the classic history of treatment and recovery programs, covering the entire course of modern American history since its beginning.  I first met him at the 6th National A.A. Archives Workshop in 2001, where I was on the planning committee, and he was the keynote speaker. After hearing him in person, I was so glad we had chosen him as our main speaker — it was the most fascinating and eye-opening talk on the general history of recovery in America I had ever heard. And Bill himself is a wonderful person. Close to Ernie Kurtz, he played a valuable role as one of the stabilizing figures in the AA History Lovers during the last two or three years of Nancy Olson’s life. And it was Bill who presided over Ernie’s memorial service in April of 2015 at Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti.

His book, Slaying the Dragon, made it clear that a really good and thorough history of A.A. would have to supply material about the context in which the new A.A. movement had developed. Nothing historical comes into existence out of a complete vacuum, and in A.A.’s case, there was a long history in the United States of trying various methods for dealing with both alcoholism and drug addiction. Some of these had a strong influence on early AA principles and methods — and also on struggles and controversies in which AA became involved later on, as we can see from Nancy Olson’s book With a Lot of Help from Our Friends. Parts of Bill White’s book and parts of Nancy Olson’s book could be read quite profitably in conjunction with one another. As Bill White says, we need to look at the history of early black A.A. in the context of the broader social and political movements in which it occurred.

WASHINGTON, D.C. Of the three earliest black A.A. groups, the social and political background of the Washington, D.C. group was the clearest. It was founded by Dr. James C. Scott, Jr., who had earned both an undergraduate degree and an M.D. from Howard University, one of the two top historically black universities. Dr. Scott, in other words, was an educated black man of the professional class who was trained at one of the major twentieth century centers for the black revolution which arose in the United States during the twentieth century.

Howard University, Incubator of Radical Consciousness

From 1942–44, Howard University students had conducted what they called “stool-sittings” in which they conducted sit-ins and pickets at cigar stores and cafeterias around Washington, D.C. which were refusing to serve black people (the same method copied in the national civil rights movement later on, from 1955 into the early 1960’s). Alain Locke (1885-1954), who was chair of their philosophy department, had been the author of the book The New Negro (1925), which became a landmark in American black literature (and the foundation statement of the Harlem Renaissance). Ralph Bunche (1903 or -04 to 1971), chair of the department of political science at Howard, was involved in the formation of the United Nations and in 1950 became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), who earned a degree in philosophy at Howard in 1964, was as we know a particularly famous member of the radical wing of the civil rights movement: he was a member of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and participated in the Freedom Rides organized by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). In 1966, Carmichael started the Black Power movement, and in 1967 co-authored the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. He was connected for a while with the Black Panther Party as its “Honorary Prime Minister.”  So the black A.A. group formed in Washington, D.C., in 1945 was simply a part of this black liberation movement, and a natural consequence when Dr. Scott, a Howard University graduate, decided that he needed A.A. to deal with his alcoholism problem.

THE CHICAGO AXIS: The underlying social and political context here was different but also clear. In what was called the Second Great Migration, between 1940 and 1970 at least five million black men and women left the southern United States and came north. By 1970, there were a million African Americans living in Chicago, now making up a third of the city’s population.

Jacob Lawrence, The Great Migration, panel 51

The Chicago Axis, as I have termed it, extended eastward from the black neighborhoods of that city and stretched the whole length of the chain of industrial cities which ran along the southern tip of Lake Michigan and beyond, including the steel mills of Gary, and the Studebaker automobile plant and all the other factories in South Bend and Mishawaka. This industrial region had begun hiring blacks for factory jobs during the Second World War, which meant that by 1945, when the first black A.A. group was formed in Chicago, there was a large black population of ambitious people who were willing to try new things. And it was not just factory workers along the Chicago Axis: it also included black lawyers, black business people, and so on.  Among the early black A.A. leaders along the Chicago Axis, Bill Williams had come from Texas, Jimmy Miller (the first black woman to get long term sobriety in A.A.) was born in Arkansas, and Harold Brown (“Brownie”) had spent his youth as a professional gambler and nightclub emcee in St. Louis before coming to South Bend and finding A.A. there.

ST. LOUIS: This black A.A. group, the first of the three, is more of a puzzle. It does not seem to fit into the larger social and political movements that American historians and people in American Studies regularly talk about. My own theory on St. Louis is that it was the product of a very different kind of impetus. Most scholars in the United States, even those who were brought up as children in the Roman Catholic Church, are totally unaware of the radical wing of the Jesuits and the Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”) which developed in the Roman Catholic Church in the early twentieth century. [1]

The Jesuits were an order of Roman Catholic priests, founded on the principles of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, who served rather like the Green Berets and other special forces groups within modern American and European militaries. The Jesuits were the ones whom the Roman Catholic Church sent in, when it was considered too dangerous for any other priests to go. They were not afraid of creatively adapting themselves to whatever the local system demanded. The Nouvelle Théologie was a movement involving Catholic theologians like Father Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., and Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J., which supplied much of the impetus for the reformation and remaking of the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965.

Father Ed Dowling

It was a radical Jesuit priest in St. Louis, Father Ed Dowling, S.J., who started the first A.A. group in that city, and then became Bill Wilson’s sponsor and spiritual advisor from 1940 to 1960. Dowling wrote an article for the A.A. Grapevine called “A.A. Steps for the Underprivileged Non-A.A.,” which came out three months after his death, in July 1960. [3]  In that article, he explained how A.A. had given rise to groups applying the twelve steps to other problems, including narcotics, gambling, and eating disorders. But A.A. had then, he argued, helped spawn the growth of numerous other self-help groups in the United States, where people with a common issue banded together to help one another. Groups appeared for psychological disorders. Father Dowling helped found and support a group for divorced Catholics (who otherwise had been run out of the Catholic Church), and praised the recently founded Mattachine Society (for gay men) and Daughters of Bilitis (for lesbians). These were extraordinarily radical things for a Catholic priest to support publicly in 1960.

But for years (starting with his creation of the first A.A. group in St. Louis right after the Big Book came out), Father Dowling’s strategy for helping any group of people whom he came upon, who were struggling with a serious problem and who were looked down upon and rejected by everyone around them, was to help them form a self-help group of some sort. And he had a long history of support for black Americans. I believe that when he discovered a group of black alcoholics, his instant response was to encourage them to form a black A.A. self-help group, and then to back them and encourage them in every way. [4]

I would like to close with a big set of thanks to William L. White, whose work I have so admired ever since I heard him speak for the first time in 2001, shortly after he and I had both begun writing books on the history of A.A. and alcoholism treatment in America. And I would like to thank him especially for the kind words he said about me in the article he just wrote for Points. I am so grateful for the wonderful people whom I have gotten to know in the years I have been writing about A.A. and its background.


[1] Glenn F. Chesnut, Heroes of Early Black AA, Chapter 20 (pp. 345 ff.) (May be read online at

[2] Glenn F. Chesnut, Father Ed Dowling: Bill Wilson’s Sponsor, Chapters 16-20. (May be read online at

[3] Ibid., Chapter 42.

[4] Ibid., Chapter 1.