As a young Foreign Service officer on my first tour of duty at the U. S. embassy at London, I was the ambassador’s junior aide. (He had a senior aide for the really important stuff.) One of my duties was to go to the airport and welcome visiting dignitaries on behalf of the ambassador. I met some interesting people.
For example, Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., of New York came to visit. The Lord Mayor of London and the mayors of all the cities and boroughs that make up Greater London were there to meet him. They were all dressed to the hilt, in morning clothes, striped pants, grey top hats – the works. The Foreign Office guy and I were the only two dressed in ordinary business suits. The plane landed and taxied up, the stairs were rolled out (this was 1955) and we waited for Hizzoner to appear. He finally appeared in the door, with a checked sport coat, a bright bow tie, a toothy grin, and a campaign wave. A distinctly audible gasp went up from the multitude. But Their Worships quickly recovered and gave him a cordial welcome.
Not long after I was sent to Heathrow to welcome a visiting congressman, Representative Adam Clayton Powell of New York. He was accompanied by his wife Lena Horne. I hadn’t heard very much about Rep. Powell other than his being one of the very few black Congressmen, but I had heard a lot about Lena Horne and had often heard her sing on the radio.
I took them to their hotel and was supposed to wait until they were ready and then take them to a reception at the embassy. On the way into London, I learned that Representative Powell was also Reverend Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. I escorted them to their suite and they asked me to come in.
Rep. Powell had to make some telephone calls, so he went into the suite’s other room, leaving me for about an hour or so with Lena Horne. We spent most the time chatting, but I couldn’t resist asking her to sing for me a few bars of “Stormy Weather,” which had been a childhood favorite of mine. She sang the whole thing while I sat there enchanted. We soon left for the embassy reception, which was fine, but I kept hearing her marvelous voice at the peak of her talent.
When they left, Representative Powell invited me to come visit his church the next time I came to New York. I promised to do so.
Now fast forward thirty-five years or so. I had never gotten around to visiting that famous church. In the early ’90s I was acting as escort interpreter for a senator from Chile. Early in his visit, we had been programmed to go to Jackson, Mississippi, where, among other places, we attended a Sunday service at a black church. He enjoyed it very much, and so did I.
We later visited New York and he told me that among the places he wanted to visit was Harlem. I wasn’t all that eager to go and walk around in Harlem, but suddenly I thought of Adam Clayton Powell’s invitation. So I told the senator about that famous church and suggested we go to Harlem on Sunday morning. He was delighted with the idea.
Reverend Powell was long gone, of course, but the pastor, Reverend Calvin Butts, and the congregation gave us a very warm welcome. He seemed quite touched when I told him of Reverend Powell’s invitation, which I was finally accepting.
It was a great experience for me and for the senator, who I believe went back home with a much better impression of the U. S. than he might have had.