Rev. Jesse Wayman Routté led a Lutheran church in New York City. His brother lived in Mobile, Alabama. In 1943, he went to Alabama to preside over his brother’s wedding and got a taste of the Jim Crow treatment in the South. He visited again in 1947, but this time, Routté went to a costume shop first and got a tall purple turban with spangles. This transformed him into what people assumed was an exotic foreign visitor. Routté affected a Swedish accent he’d learned at his Lutheran seminary to further confuse people. He also confided his plans to a newspaper editor in case something went wrong. In Mobile, Routté found many doors opened to him this time around.
He bluffed his way into Mobile’s finest restaurants, staring down any skeptical staff. “What happens if a Negro gentleman comes in here and sits down to eat?” he asked a headwaiter. He would not be served, the man replied, but the question was irrelevant, as “no Negro would dare come in here to eat.” Routté “stroked his chin gravely and ordered his dessert.”
While not downplaying the danger (the police captain’s offhanded threat of brutality had frightened him), Routté played the story for laughs. His flamboyantly scrambled otherness — where else in the known universe did turbans and Swedishness mingle? — the earnestness with which white Mobilians fielded his questions about the everyday workings of white supremacy, and the resting of social membership on a hat, cast Jim Crow in an absurdist light. “Race prejudice has been denounced for its injustice, cruelty, and stupidity,” wrote Theophilus Lewis in the Interracial Review. “Rev. Routté has proved that it is also silly.”
Routté’s adventure made the papers in New York and then across the nation, to the consternation of Mobile residents. Read about Rev. Routté and his turban trip at Narratively.