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They are all God’s children: Catholic school integration in the Archdiocese of Washington

Catholic schools in the District of Columbia began integrating their classrooms almost five years before the seminal 1954 Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. In this photo a group of children from St. Peter’s School on Capitol Hill work during a summer program in 1968.  (Photo from the Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

In the fall of 1949, the Archdiocese of Washington began integrating its Catholic schools in the District of Columbia. Five African American students enrolled in three different schools, Gonzaga High School, St. Paul’s Academy (later Mackin High School), and St. Aloysius Elementary School which was adjacent to Gonzaga High School. Two students were enrolled in each of the high schools and one was enrolled in the elementary school. This radical change, which took place five years before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, was done quietly and with little fanfare. In fact, a guest speaker, giving a talk about racial discrimination at The Catholic University of America let the cat out of the bag so to speak by disclosing that it was happening. But after one stray article in The Washington Post mentioned this fact and the non-response from the archdiocese, little more was publicized until after the historic 1954 court decision.  

Then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle and his Secretary of Education, Msgr. John Spence, worked directly with pastors, principals, and parents to make integration happen. To any opposition, they simply stressed the Catholic teaching that everyone is a child of God and deserves the same opportunities. They portrayed this teaching as a responsibility of all Catholics in the new archdiocese. They did not play the process out in the press, and the change was never announced publicly at all. The archbishop never wrote a decree or any other official document about integration.  They just did it, one school at a time, one class at a time, one child at a time.  So by the time of the Supreme Court decision, the Archdiocese of Washington was a model for others to look toward.  

St. Martin of Tours School was one of the first to begin integration in the District of Columbia, and it became a model that was profiled nationally after the landmark Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. In this 1956 photo, Boy Scout Troop No. 606 led by Wadsworth Branch from St. Martin’s Parish is shown loading up newspapers for their recycling drive. The troop collected old newspapers and recycled them to help raise funds for their activities. (Photo from the Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

Several Catholic School systems across the United States had begun to integrate before Brown. In one lengthy article in Newsweek, the Archdioceses of Washington and St. Louis were profiled.  The article went to great lengths to dismiss racist assumptions about African American children. The Catholic educators quoted in the article dismissed these stereotypes out of hand. The article used the experiences of Catholic schools to clearly demonstrate that Black and white children could learn at the same rates when they start off in the same lower grades. But it also clearly showed that students in the upper grades that came from African American schools were not as prepared as those who went to white schools.  It took them a year to “catch up” to their peers, but they did catch up and then were fine.  

Everything in the Archdiocese of Washington did not go as smoothly as these celebratory news reports seemed to suggest. Though Catholic schools in the District of Columbia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties had integrated very early, the Southern Maryland counties of Charles, St. Mary’s, and Calvert did not integrate until two years after Brown. It was announced in the parishes in the spring of 1956 that integration was coming to Southern Maryland Catholic schools during the next school year.  Charles and Calvert counties had no issues with this. But that was not the case in St. Mary’s County. Parents in St. Mary’s County held a series of meetings over the summer to discuss the situation. Meetings held inside the parishes there and in the community were attended by parents of multiple parishes. The leaders of this movement also held meetings directly with Archbishop O’Boyle, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Philip Hannan, who was then Chancellor, and Msgr Spence.   One meeting at which Archbishop O’Boyle was present lasted over six hours. 

In this undated photograph, the-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington is shown praying the rosary in a Black Catholic parish with the parishioners. (Photo from the Archives of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington)

One of the few statements that Archbishop O’Boyle authored about integration is about the issues involved with integrating Catholic schools in St. Mary’s County. The statement is located in his papers in the Archdiocesan Archives and appears to be a public address that he gave as opposed to something that was published. In it, Archbishop O’Boyle says, “The teachings of the Catholic Church pertinent to this problem are clear and definite. In the eyes of God and in the sight of the Catholic Church, there is no inequality among Catholics because of race or nationality. The colored Catholic has the same right as the white Catholic to worship in any Catholic Church and to receive the sacraments and other supernatural benefits of our holy religion. The colored Catholic child has the same right as a white Catholic child to a Catholic education. These truths I have repeated over and over again since I came to Washington as your archbishop, nine years ago. If I refrained from preaching these doctrines through fear of opposition, I would be unfaithful to my office as a Catholic bishop. I am the spiritual father of all Catholics of this Archdiocese, colored and white, and I am bound in conscience to uphold and defend the rights of all.”

 (Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)