The province’s history with slavery creates a moral obligation to promote justice and minister to and advocate for African-American brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesuits who worked for racial justice may be seen as models for the future.
Making a Stand in St. Louis
The end of legal slavery in the United States did not bring about authentic freedom of black people, but rather, the institution of slavery morphed into other practices, particularly in former slave states. In St. Louis, racism was endemic for generations. By the early 20th Century, the growing African-American population in the St. Louis area was repressed and targeted for violence. The East St. Louis massacres of May and July 1917, which included the murder of an estimated 100 innocent black people at the hands of white mobs and the pillaging and burning of their homes, are evidence of the brutal violence against African Americans during this time.
A month after the massacres, a notable commitment was made by two young St. Louis Jesuits who became influential forces for racial justice in the city and beyond. On Aug. 15, 1917, Fathers John and William Markoe and two fellow Jesuits made the following resolution:
“O, Jesus, we, the undersigned, resolve and determine, in honor of Thy Sacred Heart, Thy Holy Mother, our Guardian Angels and all our Patron Saints, especially Saint Ignatius and Saint Peter Claver, to give and dedicate our whole lives and all our energies, as far as we are able, and it is not contrary to a pure spirit of pure indifference and obedience, for the work of the salvation of the Negroes in the United States; and though altogether unworthy, we trust in the Scared Hearts, O Jesus and Mary, to obtain for us the priceless favor of doing so. And do thou, O St. Peter Claver, pray for us. Amen. Also, daily to repeat this resolution, for the fulfillment of our expectations and desires.”
Through the early part of the 20th century, the Markoe brothers and other Jesuits decried racism boldly and used their position as religious leaders to work to dismantle racist structures, even in the face of opposition.In a newspaper interview, Fr. John Markoe scoffed at surveys about discrimination. In his opinion, “That’s like surveying the Missouri River to see if it’s wet.” He believed, “Racism is evil because it’s a heresy. It denies the teachings of Christ and the Church; it’s against the natural law; it’s against decency. And it makes people suffer. It brings humiliation, poverty, misery. There’s no excuse for it. It’s so evil, it’s rotten.”
Father Markoe’s bold proclamations and activism discomfited many, and he was exiled from St. Louis to Omaha, Neb., in 1946. He continued his work for racial justice in that city, making a mark on its civil rights movement.
Even in the late ‘70s, Fr. John Markoe maintained a sense of urgency, still outraged at ongoing injustices. He saw his role in the work for racial justice as a true vocation and an honorable mission, saying “Don’t thank me for anything. Thank God for whatever I have done.”
The possibility of interracial institutions remained highly contentious in the first half of the 20th century, but Catholic schools, particularly in St. Louis and New Orleans, were fulcrum points for desegregation.
The Markoes’ account of the highly publicized integration of Saint Louis University (SLU) begins with a young black woman named Ethel Mattie Williams. Mrs. Williams wanted her daughter Ethel, who had excelled in Catholic schools all her life, to study at a religious college in St. Louis, all of which were segregated at the time. The Williams women called upon Fr. John Markoe for help in 1943 and thus a “final and successful effort to integrate the student body of St. Louis University was underway.”
Father John Markoe responded to the Williams’ call for help by first consulting the president of the University, Patrick Holloran, SJ, and several members of the faculty. Although opposed to integration on the basis that it could scare off white students and benefactors, Fr. Holloran agreed to call a formal meeting of regents and deans to discuss the matter. The meeting was twice delayed, and while Fr. Holloran sent a questionnaire to alumni, Fr. Markoe took action.
Father Markoe turned the questionnaire over to the city editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Globe Democrat and the St. Louis Star also printed a version of the letter, and this helped to thrust the university’s integration question into the consciousness of the entire city.
Father Markoe distributed a different letter to SLU’s president and influential members of the faculty: copies of “An Open Letter to Mother Edwarda,” a powerful epistle by Ted Le Berthon that appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier on Feb. 5, 1944. The letter to Reverend Mother Edwarda, the superior general of the Sisters of Loretto, tells the story of Mary Aloyse Foster who, because of her race, was denied admission to Webster College, operated by the Sisters of Loretto in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, Mo.
Even with public pressure mounting, the meeting of SLU faculty was inconclusive. During this time, a copy of “An Open Letter” came into the hands of another Jesuit, Claude Heithaus, SJ. “It struck him between the eyes with such force that, although he had never given thought to the racial problem before, he then and there decided to make this problem the topic of a sermon he was scheduled to preach shortly after the no-decision faculty meeting took place.”Father Heithaus delivered his sermon condemning racial discrimination and hatred during a Friday morning Mass at St. Francis Xavier College Church on Feb. 11, 1944. Firmly rooting his sermon in Jesuit spirituality, Fr. Heithaus spoke of uniting the struggle of black men and women to the struggle of Christ and invited students to join him in hearing this call.
While Fr. Holloran attempted to discredit Fr. Heithaus in the press, the sermon elicited tremendous support from the students who heard it. Soon after, the St. Louis Globe Democrat reported that five black students had registered at the university. Two male undergraduates enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, and two men and one woman registered for graduate studies. University records indicate Sylvester Smith and Fredda Witherspoon, two prominent civil rights leaders, began classes in summer 1944. Smith, along with Everett Walker and Nathaniel Watlington, were among the first African-American students to graduate, in 1947.
The integration of SLU was a tremendous victory as it led the Archbishop of St. Louis to consider desegregating all St. Louis Catholic schools. In 1947, Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter did just that, demanding the integration of all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. While this was progress, public opinion over the integration of schools remained divided, prompting the Archbishop’s issuance of a letter to be read aloud at every parish mass on Sept. 21, 1947, threatening that those who resisted integration would be excommunicated from the church.
Integration in St. Louis came with consequences. Because all St. Louis Catholics were thus ordered to attend the parish and school nearest to where they lived, St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary, a vibrant Jesuit parish community which reportedly drew 90% of black Catholics from throughout the city, suffered from this decentralization. St. Elizabeth’s closed in 1949, nearly 77 years after its dedication on May 18, 1873.
Recognizing the Jesuits’ success at St. Elizabeth’s Parish, with its predominantly African American congregation, Archbishop John J. Glennon transferred St. Malachy’s Parish to the Society of Jesus in 1941. Many former members of St. Elizabeth’s went to St. Malachy’s, but the community there was short lived. Factors including the Mill Creek Housing Renewal Program, changing dynamics of the neighborhood and increased violence, all affected the church community; St. Malachy’s closed in 1959. Jesuit Fathers Zimmerman and Witte, who ministered at St. Malachy’s at the time, were transferred to St. Matthew’s Parish, which remains a Jesuit parish in the UCS province.
Integration in the South
In 1947, Joseph Henry Fichter, SJ, arrived at Loyola University New Orleans ready to challenge the racism of Catholic New Orleans. During his studies at Harvard University, he had devised a plan to desegregate Loyola. Though he had underestimated the resistance he would face, he was responsible for several interracial initiatives involving New Orleans colleges and universities. According to R. Bentley Anderson, SJ, Fr. Fichter, more than any other Jesuit of the New Orleans Province, forced the Society of Jesus to examine its race policy.
In 1949, Harry Alexander, an alumnus of the nearby Xavier University – an historically black, non-Jesuit Catholic college – made the first serious attempt at desegregating Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. He was denied admission, but the struggle for integration at the Jesuit university had begun.
Though Loyola had admitted black students to select programs in 1950, it required the backing of Jesuit Fr. Louis J. Twomey for black students Norman Francis and Benjamin Johnson to enroll at Loyola University School of Law in the fall of 1952. Francis went on to serve 47 years (1968 to 2015) as the first black, lay president of Xavier University. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
At Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., Patrick Donnelly, SJ, who served as president of the college from 1946 to 1952, had urged the school board to accept black students. He was succeeded by Andrew Smith, SJ, who officially, but quietly, desegregated the school. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” of April 16, 1963, praised “the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.”
The decision to finally and fully integrate southern Jesuit schools and the province itself came after about 50 members of the former New Orleans Province met on Aug. 28, 1952, to create a policy statement rejecting segregation, issued Sept. 9, 1954.
As Fr. Anderson, notes in Black, White, and Catholic: New Orleans Interracialism, 1947-1956, “this document would be used by the archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Francis Rummel, to produce his own statement regarding segregation in 1956.”
Once again, the actions of Jesuits working for racial justice within their provinces reverberated and affected change beyond the Society.
The Social Apostolate for Civil Rights
While much of Jesuits’ work for racial justice within the province took the form of the integration of schools, Jesuit social ministries also affected change.
One early voice was Anthony Joseph Achèe, SJ, who addressed racial discrimination through radio programs in Lafayette, La., and Mobile, Ala. On the feast of St. Peter Claver in 1949, Fr. Achèe broadcast, “We do not have slaves among us anymore, but we do have the descendants of slaves, who in many places and in many respects are subject to contempt and ridicule and labor under great difficulties, and are looked upon as second-class citizens, and are discriminated against for no other reason than their race.”
Through teaching, advocacy and writing, Albert Foley, SJ, combatted institutional racism and sought to dismantle the culture of white supremacy in the Mobile community. He wrote two ordinances for Mobile in 1956 to ban police membership in the Ku Klux Klan and “intimidation by exhibit,” referring to the practice of cross burning. It is also said he offered class credit for recording the license plate numbers of cars parked at Klan rallies.
Retaliating against Fr. Foley’s efforts to obstruct them, in January 1957, the Klan attempted to gain access to Spring Hill’s campus and burn a cross. Students, up late studying for finals, heard the commotion and chased the Klan members away. The white supremacists returned the next night, this time outside the campus gates.
Father Foley continued teaching and leading workshops on social justice at Spring Hill until his death in 1990. The Albert S. Foley, S.J., Community Service Center keeps Foley’s legacy of action for justice alive today.
Jesuits also responded to the call to join with those marching from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. Violent backlash against marchers by police and retaliators on what is known as “Bloody Sunday” sparked national outrage. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for clergy and religious to join the march. Members of the Society of Jesus marched in sympathy in their own towns. Scholastics at the Jesuit High School community in Dallas, Texas, marched downtown with students. The Kermit Daily Sun reported, “About 100 students from Jesuit High School led the Dallas march. They were followed by Cowboy football players Pettis Norman, Jim Steiger, Amos Marsh, Cornell Green and Frank Clark. Marsh made a speech at the plaza, and said: ‘They tell us to wait a little longer. Can we wait another 300 years for our rights?’ ‘No. no,’ the crowd shouted in response.”
Father Louis Twomey began publishing Christ’s Blueprint for the South, a monthly mimeograph, in November 1948. Blueprint was intended for a Jesuit audience only, because, as Twomey made clear, “in our ‘intra-family’ efforts we enjoy greater freedom to analyse [sic] our Jesuit social deficiencies, to criticize constructively our failures adequately to respond to the needs of our times.”
Father Twomey clearly recognized that the work for racial justice begins with an examination of self. His humble, contemplative approach may have prompted Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe to ask him to draft a letter, The Interracial Apostolate: The Society of Jesus and Social Discrimination, published Nov. 1, 1967. This was a pivotal document, not only for the former New Orleans Province, but also for the Society of Jesus in the United States.
A few months after The Interracial Apostolate was published, Fr. Twomey was appointed director of the Interracial Apostolate in the former New Orleans Province. His appointment demonstrated a commitment to the continued work of racial justice within the New Orleans Province, especially in response to the violence during those years. Just four months after Twomey’s appointment, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., and communities throughout the country mourned in what was termed the “Holy Week Uprising.”
Looking Forward: Jesuits Working for Racial Justice
Jesuits remain active in their commitment to responding to the call for racial justice. Fred Kammer, SJ, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI), still has his copy of the original “Interracial Apostolate” letter in his office. JSRI, a collaborative effort of the UCS Province and Loyola University New Orleans, follows in Fr. Twomey’s footsteps as an organization committed to applying Catholic social teachings in working for racial and economic justice.
Thomas Clark, SJ, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge, La., said, “As a white pastor of an historically black Catholic parish, I am led to enter into an examen, that distinctly Ignatian review of one’s life and world under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to seek clarity about the consolations and desolations we encounter as we serve the Lord and his people.” For Fr. Clark and many Jesuits, these encounters are opportunities to “enter into a deeper understanding of the mystery of evil and seek hope in the transforming power of the merciful gaze of God.”
These Jesuit responses to the call for justice serve as reminders of the complex history of race within the USA Central and Southern Province. They are also a challenge to carry on the legacies of these men, who heard the call for racial justice and willingly and fervently aligned themselves with those in greatest need.
Images used in this article are from the Jesuit Archives & Research Center.