Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Desegregation of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, 1950-1974

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Desegregation of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, 1950-1974

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER 1963, FOUR WHITE CATHOLIC ELEMENTARY schools in Charleston enrolled fifteen African American students to coincide with public school desegregation in the city. While state authorities had resisted school desegregation, yielding only grudgingly and reluctantly to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Diocese of Charleston hadboth endeavored to prepare white Catholics for the change and already begun to desegregate some of its other institutions. Unable to stop desegregation of public schools, South Carolina politicians strove to limit its extent. Bishop of Charleston Ernest L. Unterkoefler, on the other hand, encouraged by the pronouncements of the Catholic Bishops of the United States as well as the Second Vatican Council and responsive to federal pressure, set about to eliminate race-based dualism in the parochial school system. But resistance from many white Catholics hampered and undermined his efforts. For the most part, white Catholics would accept nothing but token desegregation in parochial schools, and most would not send their children to traditionally black Catholic schools. African American Catholics, for their part, no more wanted segregation and discrimination in the church than in secular society, but they were largely opposed to the methods the diocese adopted in pursuit of desegregation, which, often weakened and occasionally closed the black Catholic schools they valued as education and community centers. At the same time, increasing white suburban flight rendered racial balance in urban parochial schools unattainable, and de facto residential segregation and personal preference meant that most black and white Catholics continued to attend separate schools and churches in a diocese that had officially desegregated all of its institutions.1

In January 1950, the Vatican appointed John J. Russell as bishop of Charleston. The diocese, which encompassed all of South Carolina, ministered to 17,508 Catholics, who formed just 0.9 percent of the state's population. African American Catholics, many of them converts, numbered two thousand. During the previous twenty years, Bishop Emmet M. Walsh, Russell's predecessor, had established most of the diocese's African American churches, missions, and schools in a pragmatic adaption to Jim Crow that was designed to serve blacks in the areas where they lived. White priests, known as religious priests because they belonged to religious orders such as the Holy Ghost Fathers and the Society of African Missions, served in African American parishes. Since they were racially defined and lacked geographical boundaries, black parishes were called special parishes. By contrast, whites attended geographically determined territorial parishes staffed by diocesan priests, meaning clergy who belonged to the diocese and were under the bishop's direct control. In addition, religious priests sometimes taught in black Catholic schools, which were mainly staffed by nuns from religious orders and laity. While nuns from two of the nation's African American orders, the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, taught in some schools, members of white religious orders taught in others. Parents, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, valued the educational quality and discipline of Catholic schools, which likewise served as agents .of evangelism. Migration to northern cities in search of better employment opportunities and escape from racial discrimination limited the growth of the black Catholic population in South Carolina, yet by 1960 it had increased to 3,848 of the state's more than thirty-one thousand Catholics .2

When Russell arrived in Charleston, segregation permeated all of the diocese's institutions. Although African Americans could attend some white churches, they were compelled to occupy segregated seating and take communion after whites. Two of the diocese's five hospitals, Saint Eugene in Dillon and Divine Saviour in York, accepted African American patients, but only under segregated circumstances. …

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