Sunday, August 30, 2009

Jim Crow and Catholics of "Color"

Here is an excerpt from a report written by my friend Arturo Vasquez.

Perhaps the most unfortunate story I heard about black Catholics during these times comes from Ms. Eunice, a friend of Mr. G.'s who is now a Catholic lay oblate. In her town growing up, there was only one church, but she and other black Catholics were not allowed to sit down during Mass. There were a few benches in the back that constituted the "colored" section, but if white parishioners needed to sit in those benches for some reason, the few black parishioners who could sit had to cede their place -- even if pregnant, old, or otherwise infirm. What's more, the black members of the congregation had to come late and leave early so that white Catholics didn't have to see them. They had to depart after the final blessing and be across the bayou by the time the rest of the congregation exited the church. Those who could not rush across the bridge and be out of sight of white churchgoers when they came out of Mass were subject to a severe beating.

It would be a mistake to say that such actions characterized the perennial attitudes of the old, provincial South. The system of racial separation that we now know as Jim Crow in many places did not really take affect until the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In the case of Mr. G.'s family, as "Creoles of color" or "mixed race," they were well aware of who their white relatives were; his mother, born in 1920, still remembers being baptized in the one Catholic church in town and going over to play with her white cousins on Sundays. It was only in her late childhood that the strict codes of racial apartheid began to be taken seriously in all circumstances.

In terms of religion, it was on one Sunday that her family was told that they were not allowed to come to Mass at their church anymore. They and other Creoles had to scramble to build another church and find priests who would minister to them. This was often not easy, since most of the all-white clergy didn't want to serve them. In many cases, it was only members of religious congregations like the Holy Ghost Fathers, set up to do missionary work in the "pagan" world, who would come and service their churches. As in the case of Ms. Eunice's church, these situations were often framed by violence and threats of violence. When one priest suggested in the early 1970s that the congregations should integrate and go to Mass together, his own parishioners beat him to within an inch of his life.

Most of the "resistance" to Jim Crow when it came to the Church, however, was done by a rebellion of the feet. Driving through rural Louisiana and seeing many of the black Protestant churches now present there, it's easy to forget that many of those congregation's ancestors were probably Catholic at some point. Instead of putting up with the idea of having to sit in the back of the church, or trying to organize their own church and finding a white priest who would administer the sacraments to them, many left Catholicism altogether and sought refuge in the black Protestant churches as something that could be truly and unequivocally theirs. In places like New Orleans, there was also the emergence of the black spiritual churches, which incorporated Catholic ritual and imagery into a Pentecostal-style worship service. The Catholic Church lost many souls because it chose to go along with Jim Crow, seeking not to upset the status quo even when it came to the seating arrangements of its own churches.

Read it all here.

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