Faith in the Time of Jim Crow

Over my fried alligator and onion rings at a restaurant outside New Orleans, Mr. and Mrs. G. spoke of their lives growing up in segregated southern Louisiana. The conversation was light and nostalgic until I brought up the issue of what the relationship was like in their childhood between “Creoles of color” and Cajuns. Mr. G., not at all in a bitter tone, said that the relationship was practically non-existent: Cajuns would not have anything to do with them because they were black.
Then he proceeded to tell anecdotes that many African Americans who grew up under Jim Crow can recount: having to use different bathrooms from whites, having to eat outside in the rain at a restaurant even if there was seating inside, not being able to go into certain parts of town, etc. The most heartbreaking stories for any Catholic, however, are the stories of the Church’s collaboration with this form of segregation. In some places there were separate churches for both blacks and whites. In others, however, they attended the same church, but barely saw each other; the blacks had to make sure that white Mass-goers never noticed them.
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.
To those who did not leave, who stuck with it in spite of the brutality and bigotry, it must have been difficult at times to see that this was indeed the Church that Jesus Christ founded. It is one thing to be persecuted by those outside the Church who seek to shutter your buildings and make you renounce Christ and His Church; it’s quite another for people within the Church, those other members of the Body of Christ, to persecute you and tell you that you are not wanted there. It would be difficult forus to keep the faith in those circumstances.
These stories reminded me of my now-deceased grandmother, who once told her children not to be bitter toward their father who regularly abused her. My father told me that this was not out of some overly pious sentiment of “carrying her cross” as a battered wife or due to some masochism akin to Stockholm Syndrome, but rather that she did not want her children to be consumed by the hatred of their father. In the end, if they could not have enough respect for their father to not hate him, they would never be able to lead a normal life or love someone else deeply and truly. It is something akin to this suffering love — enduring, persevering, and dignified — that I think Catholic Creoles demonstrated in the face of Jim Crow.
It was not a sign of weakness that they stayed in the Church, standing in the back, and slipping out before the end of the service so that white Catholics would not have to see them. It was the attitude of the apostles in the face of the crowd’s unbelief: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). But it also, no doubt, had the spirit of another of Our Lord’s sayings:
All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not (Mt 23:3).
Such is the spirit of real Christianity in the face of injustice and hatred. I could not help but feel great admiration for those who loved in spite of rejection, who fought the good fight and stayed the course. Their stories are indeed great examples of faith — ones that must be remembered both as a pillar of edification for us in our own trials, and as a warning against the evils that man is capable of committing, even within the walls of the Church itself.

Arturo Vasquez


Arturo Vasquez is a writer and independent researcher in New Orleans. He blogs regularly at Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity.

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