The St. Vincent De Paul Catholic School elementary girls’ basketball team was winning.
The Nashville school was almost all black, and they were playing a mostly white Catholic school. The white girls showed frowns of frustration—even anger—as did their parents in the bleachers. After the buzzer sounded, the girls started leaving the court when a couple of white girls from the losing squad called the St. Vincent team “niggers.”
The event wasn’t a bad memory from the civil rights era, Crystal Shelton, 20, is now an African American basketball player at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, recalled the incident from her elementary school days as she tried to convey an idea of what it means to grow up black and Catholic in the South.
The ‘N’ Word
“Our team was very good, and people would actually use the ‘N’ word against us,” Shelton said, “I couldn’t believe it. We would be winning games, and I was crying.”
Shelton’s team won the game but were upset afterwards by the racial slurs, “Our parents comforted us, most of whom had been discriminated against before” Shelton said. “Our parents told our athletic director. I believe the other team had to forfeit a game or something like that.”
Of course, prejudice exists in the United States. It still exists in overt and covert forms on both sides of the racial divide. And Catholics inhabit both the side that advocates for equality and tolerance, and the side that spews ethnic slurs.
But the Church itself is neither white nor black, and its members of all races often feel quite at home wherever they attend Mass and assume the responsibilities of Church members, despite the racism that still exists among Catholics in the South.
African Americans and The Catholic Church in West Tennessee
J. Terry Steib’s appointment as bishop of the Diocese of Memphis in 1993 was a landmark event in an effort begun with the creation of the diocese in 1970, to reach out to African American Catholics in the city where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
Catholics in the region owned slaves before the Civil War, and it appears that attitudes about the inferiority of Africans were not changed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
As reported in Joel William McGraw’s book, “Between the Rivers: the Catholic Heritage of West Tennessee,” a woman wrote a letter in 1906 to Bishop Thomas Sebastian Byrne of Nashville: “The only good I can see that may be done is the saving of souls of infants who have been baptized and died as soon as possible afterwards, or in the baptism of older ones on their deathbeds. … They are utterly void of truth or virtue.”
In 1921, the Josephite Fathers, an order devoted to the service of African Americans, persuaded the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus to establish a school to teach African Americans blue-collar jobs and nursing. A few years’ success brought concern that the African Americans might be taking jobs from whites, and the program ended.
St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church was established in North Memphis in 1908 to serve the entire city’s African American Catholics, and the Franciscan Fathers established St. Augustine Catholic Church in Memphis in 1937 to serve the African American community in southern Memphis.
In 1953, the Rev. Joseph E. Leppert (later a monsignor) went to St. Therese the Little Flower Catholic Church and proclaimed that his church would be integrated and that all would be treated equally. This caused a considerable stir. For example, whites pushed to be at the front of the line for communion. Among those who showed leadership in favor of equal rights was Dino Chiozza, a former professional baseball player, who challenged his fellow whites to live up to their baptismal promises.
Leppert wanted to integrate the school, but the bishop forbade that, despite the fact that Nashville’s Catholic schools were integrating in the 1950s. In 1963, Christian Brothers High School admitted the first African American, Jesse Turner Jr. Thus, Catholic schools in Memphis integrated before the public schools.
Despite the wishes of the parishioners, St. Augustine was transferred to St. Thomas Catholic Church in 1965. In 1988, Bishop Daniel Buechlein approved the return of the name of St. Augustine (an African) and the building of a new church joined architecturally to Father Bertrand High School, for which operations had been merged into Memphis Catholic High School in 1970. The new church was dedicated in 1989.
Today, of course, African Americans are welcome in every parish in West Tennessee, but many come to St. Augustine from their own parishes to experience the Church with an African American flavor.
Stephanie Harrell, 42, an African American Catholic mother of two, said she didn’t experience race-baiting in her Catholic school career at Memphis’ Catholic High, which has a diverse population, but her 15-year old son, Bobby, recently was the target of racial remarks at a mostly white Catholic school in Memphis. Their parish priest, who is white, learned of it and brought it to the attention of the school administrators, who brought the offenders in to nip it in the bud.
“I was extremely proud of him” she said of her son, Harrell. “His response was, ‘They don’t know anything about me. … They don’t matter to me.’ He handled it better than a lot of adults would.”
In contrast with the experience of Bobby Harrell and Crystal Shelton, Chris Reid, 21, said that as the only African American in his class at a Catholic school in Nashville, he had no problem relating to class-mates on the issue of race, but the school had few, if any, programs to celebrate African American achievements.
“My school was diverse, with a lot of Hispanics and so on, and I saw a lot of people being catered to, besides me—Hispanic masses, Vietnamese awareness, and so on,” he said. “Nothing happened, until I said something. I would throw little programs myself in the eighth grade. In high school, it was a lot better. I went to a lot of camps. I even got to see the Pope at World Youth Day in Canada.”
Jonathan Feild, 23, who recently graduated from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., had a diverse scholastic experience growing up, including time at a mostly white Catholic school, at a Protestant school, at a diverse public high school and at a mostly black public high school.
At the mostly white Catholic school, teachers paid little attention to slavery and the civil rights movement. “The all white teachers didn’t understand where I was coming from,” Feild said. “They’d talk about slavery for like one page, but that was 400 years! … Everything was white. In the Christmas play, I could be the shepherd boy, but I couldn’t be Jesus. When I went to a Baptist school, that’s where I saw my first black Jesus.”
M. Annette Mandley-Turner, president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, said that despite overt and covert racism, African Americans continue to join the Church—as she did herself, as a freshman in college— and return to the Church. “There is a growth opportunity here, an opportunity to grow in the Church,” Turner said from her office in Louisville, Ky., where she is also the executive director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministries. “There were some freedoms that I found in the church as a convert that perhaps I didn’t find somewhere else, and there was a deep, deep history,” said Turner, 53. “It offered an anchor, if you will, that gave me stability.”
Turner said the census estimate of 2.3 million black Catholics is probably understated. “There are a number of people that may not necessarily go to Mass every Sunday,” she said “but it’s not like they’re going to anybody else’s church. Of the ones that are going to other denominations, at some point, some will find their way back home.”