Chattanoogan: Oliver Trimiew – Living History

Monday, August 19, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Covenant alumnus and religious history professor Oliver Trimiew not only teaches history, but he lives it. While his eyes take in a certain scene, his mind’s eye is questioning how the scene came to be. Acting as a detective of text, Oliver was recently challenged to expose truth in the Chalmers and Douglass dispute.

Oliver Lee Trimiew (Sr.) and his wife Oner Mae had both been raised in the South during the time of much racial concern. Oner Mae lived in North Carolina and Oliver Sr. lived in Virginia. The two never met until they both decided to move up north to Newark, N.J., where their middle child, Oliver was born along with his two sisters.

Growing up, young Oliver was encouraged to succeed academically. “My parents emphasized my education. They were only high school graduates and they both wanted something better for me in terms of my education. That was always in my world,” he says.

Oliver played baseball and basketball, having a fairly normal childhood. He didn’t really notice the racial issues that were going on during the 50s. Oliver was surrounded by children of various races in his public school. It wasn’t until traveling South to visit family that he was awakened to his father’s challenges.

Oliver Sr. had served in the military and was trained in electronics. Unable to put his training to use (as good-paying jobs for an African American were scarce) he followed his second skill in auto repair.

“I remember when I finally came to the conclusion that something was going on. On the way to see family, my father had stopped at some place along the road to get some food and they told him that he had to go around to the back. He was furious when he came back to the car,” Oliver relates.

“My father could let it fly every now and then. I still remember picking out pieces of what this was all about. We didn’t live that way in Newark – you could go anyplace you wanted to - so I didn’t understand it, but I knew something was going on,” He recognizes. 

Learning in school was only part of Oliver’s educational experiences. His parents took them to the Newark Museum on Saturdays and they experienced culture through exhibits and featured programs and learning the history.

“At some degree I enjoyed history. I did alright in school until I discovered girls and then I started having problems,” Oliver jokes. “Why study, when I can chase girls around?”

When he went to vocational school, Oliver decided to take electronics like his father had done. He had watched his father fix things and he decided to switch his orientation from liberal arts to mathematics and science.

Oliver had visited church periodically, but it was in high school when he came to a faith experience seeking what he really wanted to become. He looked for a school where he could combine his radio skills and his faith and he found Moody Bible Institute. Oliver applied and was accepted, but he soon learned there were certain rules for his race. He would not be allowed to attend day school, but instead have to go to night school.

“I was not going to go into a place where I lived and who I had contact with, and deal with this kind of stuff – this was supposed to be a Christian school,” Oliver asserts. 

“So, I ran into some racial issues there and then this white guy, named Mr. Black, showed up in Newark from Covenant College on Lookout Mountain and wanted to recruit me for basketball and come to Covenant,” he says.

In 1967, Oliver visited the campus and attended the next year. He had to switch his mind structure back to liberal arts. After graduating, he decided to go to seminary in Massachusetts at Gordon Conwell where he would meet his wife Anna.

“I went into seminary and worked various jobs. Actually, I had worked in the 12th Baptist Church in Roxbury. It is a historical church founded in the 1830s and, while Martin Luther King was doing his studies at Boston Theological Seminary, he had a little interim pastorate at the church,” Oliver states.

In 1975, Oliver married his Jamaican wife and they moved to Chicago where he would obtain his master’s degree. When the couple began to have financial problems, Anna looked for work, but had difficulty getting hired as a resident and not a U.S. citizen. She had also found she was pregnant with their first child so it was up to Oliver to work full time and put off his studies. After having another son and a daughter, Anna did start to work and taught school on west side Chicago.

Oliver had received a call from Covenant when their Bible teacher had left suddenly. The family moved to Chattanooga in 1988 and he began teaching at Covenant. He is currently marking his 25th year.

It wasn’t until last year that Anna decided to become a U.S. citizen. There did not seem to be a need before and she didn’t want to give up her Jamaican citizenship.

“Anna had worked for a long time and things started changing politically with discussion of immigrants coming in and maybe limiting their Social Security – it is fortunate that she became a citizen when she did,” Oliver insists.

On a recent trip to Scotland, Oliver and Anna discovered the law had changed regarding necessary documents.

“On our trip to Scotland this July, Anna’s sister had gone with us. I am part of an academic society and they were meeting there and I was going to give a paper. My sister in-law flew all the way there and got to Amsterdam but they would not let her into Scotland. She had gone several times before, but the law had changed in 2009. Jamaica was no longer part of the commonwealth and she would have to have obtained a visa six months earlier,” Oliver explains.

They tried everything they could, but authorities would not let Anna’s sister go. It was a sad part of the trip for Oliver and Anna, but they were relieved that Anna had already become a U.S. citizen and was able to enter Scotland.

Not only was Oliver delivering a paper, but Anna’s mother was from Scotland and Anna had never been to her grave. The trip held special meaning and it was a blessing that it worked out for them to both go.

Oliver was looking forward to the trip for another reason as well and he gives a background that explains why.

“At Covenant College we have a place called the Chalmers Center, named after Dr. Thomas Chalmers. He was one of the most famous preachers and church builders in Scotland in the 19th century. He also had a vision for helping the poor and he organized churches,” Oliver says.

Like Oliver, Chalmers was an interdisciplinary person trained in mathematics, but he also had learned theology. In teaching African American studies, Oliver had stumbled across a problem between two men named Frederick Douglass and Thomas Chalmers.

“That is what I did my paper on. Frederick Douglas was a former slave and one of the most famous orators of the 19th century. Other people could talk about slavery, but Douglass had lived it,” Oliver proclaims.

Frederick Douglass shared his story to England, Ireland and to Scotland but ran into a problem as he was building a new church. He had sent a request for money through a delegation to his Presbyterian friends in America.

“Those who sent him money were from South Carolina and other Southern places which affirmed and practiced slavery. Douglas heard about that and he said, ‘You can’t accept money from those places.’ So he goes to Scotland and starts a ‘stop and send the money back’ campaign,” Oliver says.

“Here we are about to celebrate the 150 years of the Civil War, and the major conflict between people is ‘if you were a good slave master, that it was perfectly fine’ while others said,  ‘absolutely not, you cannot hold someone in slavery and call them your brother and sister in Christ’. You had these well-meaning Christian people but they simply did not agree on this issue,” Oliver professes.

With a little detective work, Oliver’s excitement grew as he learned more about the issue.

“I do what I do to expose the truth… and it was essential for me to go to Scotland to the very towns and cities that Douglass had been and then to give this paper. The truth of the matter is Chalmers was wrong on this particular issue. They had decided that they were going to keep this money and Douglass went there saying ‘send the money back’. He urged them to send it back but they never did,” Oliver maintains.

Researching, finding truths and speaking about them is not the only part of Oliver’s personality – he also likes to have fun. Oliver decided to create an uncomfortable scenario as a joke and played it through, masterfully.

“I went to St. Andrew’s University that is over 600 years old to give this paper… Chalmers had been a professor there… you feel like you are not just talking about history, you are living it…” Oliver expresses.

“The first thing I did was ask if there was anybody there from ‘the free church’ which is what Chalmers had started. Most people are not necessarily church related there, but some were raised in the Free Church, so one guy raised his hand and said that he was from the Free Church.  I said, ‘Great, I am glad you are here because I am here to pick up a check,” Oliver says.

Remembering the look on the young man’s face, Oliver can barely finish the story for laughing. “For several millions of dollars …for the money that was given here that was never returned… I am representing Presbyterian African Americans…” Oliver peels in laughter as he recalls the scene, yet he had followed through with his story to the young man with a straight face and had him believing him, dumbfounded.

“The guy looked at me like ‘uhhhhh….’ But I finally let him know that I was joking. I just couldn’t resist,” Oliver smiles.

Aside from his whimsical gag, Oliver’s passion for history is very thoughtful.

“I guess, what it is for me is the detective nature of history. I always found out why and how things have happened. I tell people all the time, ‘I know I live in the modern world, but half my brain in in the ancient world.’ Here was this problem with Chalmers and Douglass… and I wondered, ‘did they ever meet?’ You use the text to reconstruct the truth and the passion is uncovering that,” Oliver says.

“My trip to Scotland was living history to me for many reasons,” Oliver says, “to give my paper and because my wife had never seen her mother’s grave …and to pick up the check…. it’s in the mail… still waiting 160 years later…”

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