Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning . . . is the most segregated hour in Christian America.óRev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One wastes time and money in ministering to blacks. . . . What reason can there be that you are so solicitous for the Negro?óa priest, cited in The
Miserable Condition of Black Catholics in America, 1903.
AUGUSTUS TOLTON WAS THE SECOND OF THREE CHILDREN born in Missouri to Catholic slave parents in 1854. (Catholic slaves required the permission of their
owners to be marriedóeven to receive Communion.) His father escaped slavery in 1861, and some years later his mother took the children to Quincy,
Illinois, a town crowded with refugee slaves.
When he was refused admission to Catholic school, Tolton's mother persisted. He received some Catholic education and later was accepted to Quincy
College, a Franciscan institution, as a part-time student.
Tolton dreamed of becoming a priest, but no U.S. seminary would accept him. At 25, he was finally admitted to Urban College in Rome with the
understanding that he'd work in Africa after ordination.
Instead, after his ordination in 1886, he returned to Illinois, where he was given a tiny black parish of barely 30 people. Some wondered why a few
whites attended the "'n-word' priest's" parish, but many whites did accept him, in his words, with "no bitterness because of his complexion."
TOLTON WAS NOT THE FIRST BLACK PRIEST in the United States The three Healy brothers, sons of an Irish immigrant and a slave, were ordained about the
time Tolton was born. Throughout their lives, however, they passed as whites. One became bishop of Portland, Maine; a second was named president of
Washington's George-town University (which once kept slaves and did not accept black students until the 1920s); and the third priest-brother died of
typhoid fever soon after ordination.
At a time when priests mixed only with other priests, Tolton found himself isolated in his diocese. In 1889 he asked for a transfer to Chicago, where
an all-black congregation had been worshiping in the basement of a Catholic church since 1881.
He had 260 registered parishioners. Many black Catholics had left the church after they had been hurled out of white churches.
After eight years in Chicago, Tolton died of sunstroke en route home from a retreat. One source said that he was rushed to a Catholic hospital where
he was refused admission. He was only 44.
Tolton's life encapsulated the black Catholic experience in America. Although black Catholic communities date back to before the Civil Warówhen they
could be found in good numbers in Maryland, alongthe Gulf Coast, and in Floridaóthe record of integration is badly tainted with official indifference
In an early history, The Miserable Condition of Black Catholics in America (1903), Father Joseph Anciaux, S.S.J. wrote: "Nearly all priests, even the
most pious, fear the reproach of white citizens so much that they scarcely dare to make the slightest effort on behalf of blacks; others are so imbued
with prejudice that they say: 'The care of blacks is not my concern. They do not belong to my flock.' "
THE U.S. CATHOLIC CHURCH DID LITTLE TO FIGHT racism or to evangelize among the African American community. As recently as 1942, when a black Chicago
Catholic wrote the late Cardinal Samuel Stritch complaining that he was required to sit on a side aisle in church, the cardinal responded through his
chancellor that no discrimination was intended and that "from 100 to 150 Colored people attend the various Masses at Holy Angels on Sunday [and that]
the majority find no inconvenience. . . . I am sure you will feel better about this whole matter if you follow the practice of the majority."
The response, cited in Father Steven Avella's history of the Chicago church from 1940 until 1965, was actually mild by the standards of the time.
Elsewhere in Chicago, pastors still stood at the doors of their churches denying admission to blacks. In other cities, blacks risked physical harm if
they attempted to enter a church.
If admitted, seating was segregated and blacks approached Communionóor Confessionóonly after whites and received the sacraments from a separate
priest. Their children were denied entrance to parish schools except to those that were all-black.
Private Catholic schools and universitiesóincluding the bishops' own Catholic University of America (CUA)ówere almost universally closed to blacks.
An early registrar at CUA explained, "It was tried once with exceedingly unhappy results."
Seminaries and most religious orders barred admission to all people of color. Bishop Benjamin Keiley of Savannah, Georgia, who publicly criticized
President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, commented: "In America no black man should be ordained. Just as
illegitimate sons are declared irregular by Canon Law . . . so blacks can be declared irregular because they are held in such contempt by whites."
It would be more than another half century after Augustus Tolton's death before the Archdiocese of Chicago, a comparatively progressive and
innovative diocese, would ordain its first African American priest.
IN GENERAL, BISHOPS MOVED RELUCTANTLY TO ATTACK racial discrimination and then only under pressure of demographic, social, and political events. The
usual episcopal response was: "The opportune moment has not yet arrived." Historian Avella, a Milwaukee priest, observed wryly, "The opportune
moment would never arrive."
Racism is not a unique invention of the American melting pot. In nearly all the world's societies, people have developed pride in their cultural
accomplishments. Almost inevitably, it has led to derogation of their neigh-bors' successes.
The racist idea that certain groups are genetically superior to others, however, has not been as widespread. Where it exists today, it is mostly the
out-growth of the rationalization of slavery and colonial expansion in the Americas and the territories dominated by European settlers.
SOME SCHOLARS DATE THE BEGINNINGS OF RACISM to the Hindu caste system that originated in the physical differences between the Aryans who invaded India
between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. and the conquered Dravidians. The three top castes were composed of Aryans; the fourth caste was made up
largely of Dravidians; a fifth group, the untouchables, were all Dravidians.
The Hindi term for casteóvarnaómeans "color." While the Aryans were of lighter skin, varna does not refer to skin pigmentation. It connotes,
however, good and evilóand the Dravidians were considered the "bad guys."
The good-bad link moved over to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The darker-skinned enemies continued to be seen as the evil ones and the language
became filled with associ-ations of skin color to moral fiber.
Neither Hebrew nor Christian scripture contains clear evidence of racism.
RACISTS, HOWEVER, HAVE USED PASSAGES of the Bible for divine sanctioning of slavery.
Noah's curse on his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:20-27) served as the prime proof text for their twisted arguments.
When Noah exited the ark, he planted a vineyard. He sampled too much of his wine, got drunk, and lay naked inside his tent.
Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham had a son named Canaan. Ham saw his father's nakedness, but his brothers walked backward into the
tent to avoid the sight. When Noah awoke, he put a curse on Ham's son, declaring that Canaan "shall be a slave to his brothers."
Modern commentators believe that the story was told to justify the enslavement of the Canaanites because of certain indecent sexual practices in the
Canaanite religion. The land of Canaan, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan and the Dead Sea, was where the Israelites settled.
FOR CENTURIES, EUROPEANS, AMERICANS, AND WHITE South Africans have used this text to justify the enslavement of Africans, whom they considered the
children of Canaan.
Some racists also quote the Song of Songs (1:5-6): "I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem . . . Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me. My mother's sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards."
The verse has been used as biblical justification that dark-skinned people are to occupy a lower rung on the racial ladder and are ordained to serve
Similarly, there is no clear justification for racism in the Koran and Islamic tradition. At least 20 percent of the world's Muslims are black, and
black African kings have made pilgrimages to Mecca since the Middle Ages. Even the Arabs involved in the slave trade do not appear to have
rationalized their actions in the name of religion.
Asian attitudes about race appear to be dictated by a tight insider system,and both Chinese and Japanese often express a marked dislike for physical
types that are at variance with their own ideas of beauty.
There is little real evidence of racism among nonliterate or so-called primitive societies. In a few African tribes, there are traces of it based on
heightónot much to hang strong hatred on.
Far and away the most widespread, enduring, and virulent form of racism óand the costliest in terms of human sufferingóhas been that which originated
in Europe and its colonial extensions.
Early Roman and Greek states were based on status as patrician or plebeian, patron or client, free citizen or slave. Race was not mentioned, other
than to term a nonwhite as "exotic."
With the arrival of Christianity, the divisions became religious rather than racial. Status was measured by whether or not one was Moor, Jew, or
Christian, and what kind of Christian. Only when Europeans came into contact with large numbers of dark-skinned peoples, as a result of their colonial
expansion in the 15th century, did racism start to develop.
The Spanish conquest of the New World led to immediate distinctions between the Spanish in-vaders and the Indians and between the Spanish born in
Spain and those born in the New World.
But it was the Dutch and the British who set the pattern for racism in North America, South Africa, and Australia. In each of these places, racism
gradually gave way to one of its cousinsósegregation. At about the same time, racism as a "scientific" theory began to take hold in Europe,
particularly in Germany.
Although English naturalist Charles Darwin was not a racist, his theory of the survival of the fittest became a convenient peg on which racists could
hang their hats. It lasted until around 1930, by which time it had taken political form under Adolf Hitler. His super race was a horrendous exten-sion
of Darwin's innocent theories.
There is an undeniable relationship between religion and racism.
Josiah Strong, a minister in the Congregational Church and, iron-ically, a proponent of the "social gospel," defined the world role of Anglo-Saxon
Protestantism. In his 1893 best-seller The New Era or the Coming Kingdom, Strong linked "the greatest race" with a more purified form of
Christianity that would eventually "spread over the earth."
In the "final competition of the races," the weaker ones (read: blacks, Jews, Catholics) would simply never measure up to the new Anglo-Saxonized
humankind. "It would seem as if these inferior tribes were only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying 'Prepare ye the way
of the Lord!' "
According to Strong, Anglo-Saxon Protestant religiosity was "more vigorous, more spiritual, more Christian than that of any other race." The
Anglo-Saxon race, he said, had been chosen to prepare for the full coming of God's kingdom.
Strong's book was widely viewed as a catechism of racial and religi-ous superiority. Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom comments, "American
Protestantism in its best moods was capable of genuine charity, but in its average performance and typical expression, it strengthened nativism,
contributing in many ways to extreme manifestations of intolerance, and even providing leadership for nativist organizations."
When the South in the 1890s institutionalized Jim Crow segregation, it was with churches' complicity.
As David M. Reimers writes in White Protestantism and the Negro, "Denomination mattered little, for support for the racist creed ran the gamut from
urban Episcopalians to country Baptists."
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism was often tied to anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Blacks, Jews, and Catholics were all lumped together as
targets of the white-robed Ku Klux Klan, a distinctly Protestant organization that boasted its own chaplains and hymns. "Never before," John Higham
wrote in Strangers in the Land, "has a single society gathered up so many hatreds."
Black churches emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Their be-ginnings, observes Cath-erine Meeks, professor of African American studies at
Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, were characterized by a "dynamic of the white church's racism and the black church's resistance."
Meeks says, "It was the white control of the worship [on slave-holding plantations], the inability to accept blacks as equals, and the negation of
black personhood that led to the separation of the black church from the white church and to the emergence of a black religious community."
Independent black churchesómost of them Baptist or Methodistó"were not separating themselves from whites because they held a different doctrinal view
of Christianity," notes James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary. "Without exception, blacks used the same articles of faith and polity for their
churches as the white denominations from which they separated. Separation, for blacks, meant that . . . they were rejecting racism that was based on
the assumption that God created blacks inferior to whites."
Even though white Protestant denominations in the 1840s split over the issue of slavery, the congregations of northern Protestants remained just as
closed to blacks who moved north. The religious segregation that took shape then persists today. According to one recent poll, fewer than half of the
Christians in the U.S. said they attend a church that includes anyone from another race.
Despite this rather bleak overall picture, there were also numerous examples of Protestant efforts to put an end to racism, especially slavery.
Presbyterians spoke out as early as 1818, at a time when several Catholic colleges and seminaries still held slaves. A group of Baptists published a
newsletter calling for an end to slavery. Most abolitionist groups were connected to churches.
The Catholic Church in the U.S. was hardly at the forefront in civil rights. It conformed to local normsóin some places right down to seg-regated
confessionals, not unlike Southern water fountains.
In 1954, when Bishop Vincent Waters of Raleigh, North Carolina ordered an end to all segregation in the churches, it made national headlines. But
former Common-weal editor John Deedy observes, "The American Catholic Church was about as interested in blacks in America as it was in American
Indians, which was not very much."
Catholic and white Protestant church leadership was conspicuously absent during most of the civil-rights struggle with its marches, bus boycotts,
voter-registration drives, state-university enrollment, and housing protests.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" in response to a public statement by eight prominent local
church leaders (including the bishops of the Catholic, Episcopal, and Methodist churches), who had denounced him as an "extremist" and "outsider."
In the letter, King expressed his deep disappointment with the white church and its leadership. He accused it of being content "to stand on the
sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities."
King's appeal finally had some effect in awakening significant segments of the white Protestant and Catholic churches. The strongest expression of
that belated support was the 1965 Selma March in which many priests, religious, and ministers participated.
But even at Selma, no major Catholic leaders were present. One bishop even reprimanded his priest-secretary for taking part and thus "dragging his
name into it."
Catherine Meeks reminds U.S. Christians that racism is still alive in their churches: "Too little has changed! In spite of the struggles of the past
for racial equality, racial freedom, and respect, the basic foundation of racism in the church is alive and well. As a matter of fact, it is thriving
in an atmosphere of fear and complacency created by the church's lack of conversion to the message of Jesus."
Looking back on this nation's racist history, former member of Congress and Jesuit Father Robert F. Drinan observes, "It is incredible that in a
nation with profoundly Christian roots such a thing could have happened."óEND
© 1997 by Claretian Publications