Joseph Rummel - The Desegregation of The Archdiocese

The Desegregation of The Archdiocese

Rummel spent most of his tenure in New Orleans expanding the parochial school system. However, Rummel is perhaps best remembered for his controversial decision to desegregate the Archdiocese, including the Catholic schools. All of the Southern States, including Louisiana and the city of New Orleans, had been racially segregated by law since the failure of Reconstruction in the 1870s. Like the rest of the city, church parishes and schools within the Archdiocese were also segregated. The community had accepted segregation as a normal part of life.

The city of New Orleans has always had a large population of black Catholics. Previous archbishops, such as Archbishop Francis Janssens and Archbishop James Blenk, established dedicated schools for black children in an attempt to improve the educational opportunities of its black parishioners. But the segregated parochial school system suffered from the same problems with underfunding and low standards as the segregated public school system. No archbishop attempted to desegregate the Archdiocese until the Civil Rights Movement began after the end of the Second World War.

Once the movement did begin, Rummel embraced the cause of racial equality. He admitted two black students to the Notre Dame Seminary in 1948. He ordered the removal of "white" and "colored" signs from churches in 1951. That year, he opened Saint Augustine High School, the first high school dedicated to the higher education of young black men in the history of the Archdiocese. And in 1953, he issued "Blessed Are the Peacemakers", the pastoral letter that officially ordered the end to segregation in the entire Archdiocese:

"Ever mindful, therefore, of the basic truth that our Colored Catholic brethren share with us the same spiritual life and destiny, the same membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, the same dependence upon the Word of God, the participation in the Sacraments, especially the Most Holy Eucharist, the same need of moral and social encouragement,
let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven."
Rummel, Most Reverend Joseph Francis.
"Blessed Are the Peacemakers." Pastoral letter 15. 1953.

The letter was read in every church in every parish of the Archdiocese. Some parishioners organized protests against the diocesan order. Rummel closed a church in 1955, when its members began protesting the assignment of a black priest to their parish. He issued another pastoral letter the following year, reiterating the incompatibility of segregation with the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

"Racial segregation as such is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve."
Rummel, Most Reverend Joseph Francis.
"The Morality of Racial Segregation." Pastoral letter. Feb. 1956.

But most parishioners reluctantly accepted the desegregation of church parishes. The situation was very different for school desegregation. The United States Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional and reversing all state laws which had established them.

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Warren, Earl. Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. May 17, 1954.

The Louisiana State Legislature promptly passed Act 555 and Act 556, protecting its segregated public school system from being dismantled by the Supreme Court. Both acts were rendered unconstitutional by Judge J. Skelly Wright, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, in the case Earl Benjamin Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board on February 1956. Nevertheless, the Orleans Parish School Board and neighboring parish school boards vowed to postpone desegregating their public schools indefinitely.

Archbishop Rummel praised Brown v. Board of Education, but he was reluctant to desegregate his own parochial school system. He had announced his intention to desegregate the Catholic schools as early as 1956. However, most archdiocesan parish school boards had voted against desegregation. After Bush v. Parish School Board, some parents had transferred their students from public schools to parochial schools to avoid desegregation. A few local Catholics sent a petition to Pope Pius XII, requesting a papal decree supporting segregation. The papacy responded by describing racism as a major evil.

There was also a very real threat that the Louisiana State Legislature would withhold funding from parochial schools if they desegregated. The State of Louisiana funded free textbooks, reduced lunches, and free buses for all students in the state, even students attending parochial schools. This was a legacy of Huey Long's Share Our Wealth program, and it still exists to this day.

But by 1962, Judge Wright had issued a barrage of court orders neutralizing the Orleans Parish School Board's attempts at evading the Supreme Court. A handful of black students were already being admitted into previously all white public schools. Archbishop Rummel formally announced the end of segregation in the New Orleans parochial school system on March 27, 1962. The 1962-1963 school year would be the first integrated school year in the history of the Archdiocese.

White segregationists were outraged. Politicians organized "citizen's councils", held public protests, and initiated letter writing campaigns. Parents threatened to transfer their children to public schools or even boycott the entire school year. Rummel issued numerous letters to individual Catholics, pleading for their cooperation and explaining his decision. He even went so far as to threaten opponents of desegregation with excommunication, the most severe censure of the Church. The threats were enough to convince most segregationist Catholics into standing down. Nevertheless, some parishioners continued to organize protests.

On April 16, 1962, the Monday before Easter, he excommunicated three local Catholics for defying the authority the Church and organizing protests against the Archdiocese. The first of the three was Judge Leander Perez, 70, a parish judge from St. Bernard Parish, who called on Catholics to withhold donations to the Archdiocese and to boycott Sunday church collections. The second was Jackson G. Ricau, 44, political commentator, segregationist writer, and director of the "Citizens Council of South Louisiana". The third was Una Gaillot, 41, mother of two, housewife, and president of "Save Our Nation Inc.". The excommunications made national headlines and had the tacit support of the papacy.

A few months later, the 1963 school year began on September 1962. A handful of black students were admitted to previously all-white Catholic schools. Earlier threats of boycotts and mass student transfers to public schools never materialized. No violence took place between whites and the black students. Parents and students grudgingly surrendered to Rummel's decision, and racial segregation in the Archdiocese quietly faded from memory.

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