Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights

Article excerpt

Episcopalians and Race: Civil War to Civil Rights. By Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Pp. xiii, 298; $35.00, cloth)

The subject of this book is the relationship between the Episcopal Church and its black communicants in the South from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement and the reaction of the church to the changes in American race relationships that followed. It is a well-documented, thorough, and balanced account, and a significant one. The nature and change of race relationships within the denomination have their own drama, but they also approximated those in American society as a whole, and the small picture is an interesting and informative thumbnail of the larger.

White southern Methodists adapted to the emancipation of their slaves by creating a separate denomination for the freedmen. Not so the Episcopalians. Acting with the same self-interested, supremacist paternalism that had characterized antebellum leadership, they determined that their African-American brethren should be segregated but remain under the control, in the words of a national committee, of "Anglo-Saxon Churchmen [who] have earned by centuries toil and suffering the right to leadership in teaching and guarding the faith"(p. 23). White bishops thus presided over black parishes, and blacks communicants were excluded from decision-making and often even participation in the state conventions that ran the church. Why would Af rican-Americans accept this situation one might ask, and the answer is that few of them did. A head count in 1933 found only 31,000 black Episcopalians in the United States and two-thirds of them were living in the northeast.

With World War II racial change began to occur. In 1943 the Episcopal Church made a commitment "to break through the encirclement of racial segregation in all matters which pertain to her program" (p. 35) and created a Bi-Racial Committee headed by a black clergyman. The break through was a little slow, but in 1951 Virginia Seminary admitted its first black student, and in 1954 South Carolina opened its convention to members of the black laity. Meanwhile young clergymen began to pressure for more rapid change. Chief among them was John Morris of South Carolina, who began to push hard for integration within the church in the mid-1950s and played a leading role in the organization and operation ESCRU, The Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, which was the center of Episcopal activism from 1960 to 1970. In the fall of 1961, Morris led twenty-three ESCRU priests, most of them from the north, on a freedom ride from New Orleans to the Episcopal General Convention in Detroit. …