Desegregation of the New Orleans Parochial Schools

Article excerpt

The desegregation of the largest group of nonpublic schools, the parochial schools of the Roman Catholic Church, has received scant scholarly attention, partly due to a paucity of primary source material that could illuminate the private motivations of church leaders who were required neither to integrate their schools nor to share their thoughts. This paper examines the Church's struggle to reconcile its moral imperative to desegregate with temporal pressures to resist, as documented in the archives of the Catholic Council of Human Relations in New Orleans, home of the largest number of African American Catholics in the United States.

Much has been written about the impact of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) on the nation's public schools, but little research has focused on the integration of the largest group of nonpublic schools for elementary and secondary students: the parochial schools of the Roman Catholic Church. The public schools' motivation for integrating largely stemmed from legal compunctions arising from Brown (Bly, 1998), but parochial schools were private and not legally required to integrate their student bodies (Gordon, 1994).

At first glance, the Church's motivation to desegregate would seem to stem from moral concerns, as would seem appropriate for religious institutions. Even a cursory study of the timetable the parochial schools followed in integrating, however, suggests that temporal concerns also must have been present in the minds of church leaders. An economic symbiosis had grown up between the public and private sectors. Most parochial schools received some public funds and had come to depend on them. Of even greater importance was the enormous indirect economic benefit of exemption from various state taxes. On the other hand, parochial schools in New Orleans (as well as nationally) absorbed a significant number of children whom taxpayers otherwise would have to educate, so the public sector had a vested interest in keeping them viable. Both African Americans seeking a better educational alternative to the public schools and European Americans seeking to avoid public school integration were interested in what the parochial schools might offer. In that environment, the Church's choices in relation to school integration would spill over into other aspects of Church life, including the collection plate.

The way Catholic leaders reconciled their imperative to safeguard the moral health of their parishioners and institutions with economic and political pressures has until now been mostly a private matter because Church records are not in the public domain and open to scrutiny. Recently, however, some insight into the internal struggles of the Church during this turbulent period has become possible regarding the most important Catholic city in the South-New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1961, then New Orleans' Archbishop Joseph Rummel established the Catholic Council of Human Relations (CCHR) to deal with the issues of race relations and integration. CCHR's correspondence and records, along with local and national press articles, were preserved and donated to the Amistad Research Center of Tulane University. The record provides a unique glimpse into the private thinking of Catholic leadership and demonstrates that the surface impression is correctpolitics and economics were powerful forces motivating the Church's behavior and sometimes deflected its moral imperative to integrate.

THE INTEGRATION OF NEW ORLEANS PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS

New Orleans is both Southern and Catholic-the only predominantly Catholic city in the South and home to more than half the South's Catholics. It is also the home of the largest African American Catholic population in the United States-11% of all African American Catholics in the United States (Wicklein, 1959). As the only city whose population included a near majority of both Catholics and African Americans, the Archdiocese's handling of integration was the focus of much local and national interest. …