Archbishop Thomas Toolen
of Mobile 1927-1969
Racial segregation was a given fact in U.S. society from the time that African slaves were first imported to Jamestown in 1619 until the mid-twentieth century and, in fact, continues today to lurk in various discrete nooks and crannies of our society. At the very beginning the Africans were treated as indentured servants and given their freedom after serving a designated number of years, but within a matter of twenty years this began to change and various court decisions ruled that Africans bought from Spanish or Portuguese traders were to be held in permanent servitude. At the time of our Declaration of Independence in 1776, all thirteen colonies permitted slavery but gradually over the next thirty plus years Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and the New England States each passed laws abolishing slavery. As Florida and Louisiana became American possessions they maintained the institution of slavery as they had known it under Spanish and French rule.
There were social protocols governing the relationships of masters and servants, whether those servants be free or enslaved. A servant was a member of the household, but not of the family. Just like the Downton Abbey of early 20th century England, servants never dined with the family, though a member of the family might, on occasion, eat with the servants. Servants had their own living quarters distinct from the family. Family members, no matter how young, were always spoken to by title by the servants and servants were always called by either their Christian name or their surname but never with a title. If servants were in the family quarters it was to serve, not just to entertain themselves. Separation was not strict—masters and servants often worked together on the farm or the buildings. Servants helped dress and undress their masters and mistresses. Conversations, while always correct and somewhat formal, might still be fairly intimate in content.
The Catholic Church, like most of the Protestant Churches—Anglican, Reformed/Presbyterian, and after 1800 Baptist and Methodist, took slavery for granted. The Maryland Jesuits, the only priests legally in the colonies before the Revolution, supported their mission work by the large plantations they owned and the slaves that worked them. There was considerable debate among theologians about slavery and a distinction was drawn, as it has been about war, about “unjust” and “just” enslavement. Nevertheless, the Church was slow to move against slavery. Between 1573 and 1826 books arguing that slavery was fundamentally immoral ended up on the Index of Forbidden Books. Some clergy who called for the emancipation of slaves in the United States were excommunicated. It was only in 1839 that arch-conservative Pope Gregory XVI issued the Bull In Supremo Apostolatus condemning both the slave trade and the institution itself.
In all this we must remember that the United States was not the only country practicing the enslavement of human persons. Far more to the consciousness of the Roman Church was Latin America where slavery both of native peoples and imported African slaves was widespread. By the time that Gregory issued his Bull, slavery had begun to disappear in the Latin American scene, at least as a formal institution. The reaction of the U.S. Bishops to In Supremo Apostolatus was much the same as their more contemporary successors would give to the papal teaching on war, nuclear weapons, economic justice, and now, rights of immigrants. They explained it away or, for the most part, just ignored it. By Gregory’s time, the issue of slavery had become a powder keg threatening to blow up the Union and the bishops chose to turn a blind eye to slavery and a deaf ear to the papal magisterium.
Well, the Bishops may not have touched the match to the fuse but the blowup came and passed with way too much blood shed and the aftermath was not pretty.
This posting is not about slavery but about segregation and in the years immediately following the Civil War the Northern military governments controlling the Southern States which had been “in rebellion” instituted a program called “Reconstruction.” In an attempt to right the wrongs of slavery (and to rub the rebel noses in the mud and remind them that they lost the war) many of the social institutions of the “Old South” were gutted. Former slaves found themselves able to vote and to hold office while their masters, until they took an oath of allegiance to the Union could not. The powerful were cast down from their thrones and the lowly were raised up, but it was a shaky and fragile state of things. When the political winds in Washington changed, as they always do, and Reconstruction ended not with a bang but a whimper, those Blacks who had collaborated with the Reconstructionist “carpet baggers” found themselves out on a limb. As more and more whites were able to vote they took over the political machinery and instituted a series of laws known as the Jim Crow Laws that established strict segregation of the races. There were to be “separate but equal” schools, hospitals, and other public institutions for whites and for “people of color.” They got the separate part right, but didn’t score high on the equal. There were “separate but equal” rest rooms, swimming pools, and waiting rooms. Restaurants were free to serve only whites and any restaurant that wanted to succeed in the white community did precisely that. Whites and Blacks shopped at different stores, worshipped at different churches, and were buried in different cemeteries. It was illegal for Blacks and Whites to intermarry and to be licensed to perform a wedding clergy had to post a bond that guaranteed that they would perform no such wedding.
Now, before we think this is a Southern issue, the Northern States had a far more discrete method of segregation. An African-American family looking to buy a home was shown homes in neighborhoods with other African-American families and Whites lived in White neighborhoods. This meant, of course, that schools would be predominately White or “Colored” depending on the neighborhood. And just like in the south, the schools where the majority of students were of African descent were last to receive books, experienced teachers, and educational materials. As for churches—the parochial system in the United States guaranteed that Catholic churches in white neighborhoods would be white; those in Black neighborhoods would minister to the Black Catholic community, which generally was quite small. I remember myself seeing, probably around 1960, a number of people stand up and leave the communion rail when a black family appeared at it. To the Church’s credit, however, it provided many good and affordable parochial schools in Black parishes which gave children an opportunity to get ahead in competition of better high schools and colleges. There were several religious orders of women established to work with African American children but most of the traditionally White communities pitched in just as hard. If anything good can be said about the Church’s response to racial injustice, it is due to the women, not to the men.
Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the American bishops accepted the segregation status quo without complaint. Although Missouri, a slave state, had remained in the Union during the Civil War it, like other Border States such as Kentucky and Maryland, had adopted the strict segregation policies of the deep South. The Archdiocese of Saint Louis ran a good number of Catholic Schools for Black Children but the schools were all strictly segregated. In the 1940’s progressive clergy—especially the Jesuits at Saint Louis University—began to press for an end to segregation and the Archbishop, John Glennon (later Cardinal), an octogenarian, fought the change from segregation. Glennon, incidentally was not a Southerner himself but was Irish born and bred. One priest, a member of the faculty at Saint Louis University, gave a blistering sermon that was reported in newspapers across the country accusing the Archdiocese of Saint Louis of immorality in its racial policies. Other priests also spoke up in favor of integration and organized to push for integration of Church institutions. In 1943 Webster College, a woman’s college run by the Sisters of Loretto agreed to accept black students. Glennon contact the superior of the Sisters at the Motherhouse in Kentucky and had the decision reversed. However the Jesuits at Saint Louis University began admitting African American students at the (then) all-male University. The relationship of the Jesuits at Saint Louis University and the Archbishops of Saint Louis has some interesting chapters, renewed again during the episcopate of our dear Cardinal Burke.
The story was not much different elsewhere. Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore/Washington resisted pressure to integrate the schools and parish of his Archdiocese which included the national capital. As the Civil Rights Movement picked up momentum Catholic clergy were initially absent from the ranks because their bishops and religious superiors refused them permission to participate. Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, one of the greatest blemishes on history of the Church in the United States, suspended priests for preaching in favor of Civil Rights for African Americans. Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile had made it clear that no priest was to participate in the marches with Dr. Martin Luther King and other Black leaders. Once again, it was the women who led the way as the nuns showed up where the priests feared to go. In fact, much of the “radicalization” of American Religious Women is rooted in their experience of challenging both the authority of the bishops and the power of social norms in their participation in the Civil Rights Movement.
Toolen is an interesting example of the ambivalence of the American hierarchy towards racial justice. He opened new churches, hospitals, schools, and orphanages to minister exclusively to African Americans and was derided as “the nigger bishop” for his commitment to work in the Black community. In 1950 he opened Saint Martin de Porres Hospital in Mobile where both African American and White physicians could practice. In 1964 he ordered the integration of the Catholic schools in his diocese—of course this was ten years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandated integration of public schools. To be fair, however, most public schools in the south had yet to be integrated so this is another instance where the Church is slow but still on the cutting edge. As stated above he opposed the Civil Rights marches and demonstrations and forbad the clergy from participating. One priest, Father Maurice Ouellet of the Edmundite Fathers was removed from his pastorate for permitting the parish rectory to be used for organizational meetings for Civil Rights Events. He also rejected African Americans as seminary candidates for priesthood. One of those rejected, Joseph Howze, later became the first Bishop of Biloxi.
In my next posting we will deal with the saga of Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans and the excommunication of Judge Leander Perez, Jackson G. Ricau, and Una Gaillot, three segregationists who opposed his desegregation of Catholic Institutions in New Orleans Archdiocese.