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Neither Inevitable nor Continuous with the Past: Writing about Jim Crow New Orleans and Religion

James Bennett, Religious Studies, Santa Clara University


When I began graduate school I was looking forward to a career studying religion in colonial America. Puritans, I must confess, were my passion. That I am now a historian of the late nineteenth century South still surprises me at times. This transformation has been a useful reminder of how I ought to approach my craft. The unforeseen turns in my own scholarly path remind me to privilege contingency over inevitability as the most faithful representation of the people and events I study.

The sharpest turn in my own scholarly trajectory occurred in an informal graduate student discussion group. Dennis Dickerson, then of Williams College and now of Vanderbilt University, had come to talk about using denominational records for historical research. Such sources had fallen out of favor with the move from church history to religious history. Professor Dickerson was also the historiographer of the AME Church. Among the examples he brought were the minutes of the 1898 North Georgia Annual Conference. In one passage Dickerson read, the minutes noted that a white guest addressed the conference. When the presiding bishop returned to the podium he made a comment along the lines of, “I do not entirely agree with what the previous speaker said.” The minutes offered no further explanation of the guest’s words or the bishop’s objections. They simply moved on to the next item of business. That silence captivated me. What had happened? How had others responded? In those gaps were stories I wanted to know more about.  I began to wonder how black and white Christians who claimed the same faith related to one another in the wake of Emancipation and Reconstruction. By the time I headed home that evening I’d left the seventeenth century for the late nineteenth century; I’ve barely looked back since.

Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans is my attempt to answer some of the questions Professor Dickerson presented years ago. The challenge was moving from the thrill of inspiration to the pragmatic task of creating a manageable project.

Eventually, I decided—or, more accurately, my advisors led me—to frame my study in three interrelated ways.  The project would first focus on the question of segregation. While I was still a recovering colonial historian, Glenda Gilmore introduced me to the historiography of the Jim Crow South. For all we read, I kept coming back to C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward’s explanation of the rise of segregation as a deliberate and late reaction to other alternatives was compelling, and my preliminary research supported his thesis. But Woodward’s scholarship loomed large not only for its interpretation of the past but also for its impact on the time in which he wrote. It stood as a reminder that history that takes seriously the perspective of those who lived it can speak to concerns of the present as well as those of the past.

Jackson Monument and St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans, LA. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [Reproduction number LC-USZ62-65453]

 

   

This possibility resurfaced when friends and family responded to the one sentence summary I wrote to describe my project. Most offered a lament of contemporary racial divisions, invoking various forms of the cliché that Sunday at 11am is the most segregated hour of the week. Many believed such divisions had always existed, giving racial separation a timeless and normative status. My primary audience for the book was fellow historians of religion and the South. But these informal conversations suggested a broader potential (should any non-historians read the book) to counter popular assumptions about the inevitable and continuous character of contemporary religious separation.

Focusing on a limited geographic area was another decision that helped keep the project manageable. Despite my initial resistance, Jon Butler kept pointing me towards New Orleans, reminding me of the Crescent City’s historical importance and the dearth of studies focusing on its religious heritage. While New Orleans was interesting in and of itself, its post-Reconstruction history included much that was representative of and relevant to tensions between religion and race within the region and the nation as a whole. New Orleans was the largest city in the South and by the early twentieth century it was among the most segregated cities in the South. The critical Plessy v. Ferguson case that sanctioned segregation developed there; the city had large concentrations of both Protestants and Catholics; and it was a major port of entry for immigrants who settled throughout the South and the Midwest.

The Methodist Episcopal and Catholic Churches in New Orleans were well suited for a study of segregation. At one level this focus was pragmatic. New Orleans was a center of activity for both traditions in the South and my initial archival survey turned up a wealth of material on the two. In preparation for that initial visit Harry Stout insisted I ask in each archive for everything between 1877 and 1920, whether or not the archivists thought it relevant. It was intimidating but shrewd advice. While I fell short of Stout’s ideal, I saw enough to recognize that the tensions between racial unity and division in churches was a central theme in that era. For Catholic and Methodist Episcopal Church members in New Orleans, their version of racial inclusion over and against racially separate denominations was crucial to their religious and national identities.

I became convinced that these biracial denominations were the best lens for viewing the nature and role of segregation within the religious realm. Too often, African Methodist or Black Baptist denominations have stood for the whole of African American religious experience, largely because they predominate numerically. But these groups’ decisions to self-separate did not constitute segregation. Independent black denominations resulted from the assertion of black will, often against white wishes, even though the decision to separate was a direct result of and response to racism. Segregation, on the other hand, is the unilateral decision of the dominant group to exclude the disempowered, who have no say in the matter. Therefore, I became convinced that denominations with both black and white members were the best context for understanding the relation between segregation in American religious institutions and in American society more broadly, both of which were occurring at the same time.

Focusing on segregation, New Orleans, and biracial denominations opened up new issues that were not on my radar when the project began but became increasingly important as it progressed.

Black Catholics and black Methodist Episcopalians became important to me, not just because of their denominations' relevance to the question of segregation, but as ways to complicate the idea of a monolithic black church. That construct homogenizes the experiences and institutions of African Americans in ways that do not match historical realities. There is a careful balance here, since the experiences of black Christians were undeniably different from those of white Christians in the United States. (Sociologists and historians like W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Mays, and Carter Woodson emphasized this reality very early.) There were also differences between the various traditions in which black Christians participated. We fail to understand the complexity of black religious experiences—a nuance that historians take for granted in describing white religious institutions—when we resort to terms like “black church” to describe African American religious institutions.

Another complication for the project was the contentious debate over the Crescent City’s exceptionalism or typicality. While such questions are intrinsic to any geographically limited monograph, perhaps nowhere in the American South do they seem as overt as in New Orleans. Many historians had developed a tendency to ignore the region, assuming it was atypical and thus irrelevant to the broader characteristics of the South’s and the nation’s religious and racial history. Regional scholars capitalized on this assumption and created a cottage industry that advanced this thesis of exceptionalism. They could claim an area of expertise that was outside the knowledge of other historians. Both extremes ignored historical realities.

Fortunately, more recent scholarship has emphasized the balance of similarity and difference that I hoped to strike in my own work. This is not to deny some seemingly distinctive features, which include a French and Spanish colonial past, an early Catholic dominance, and a relative racial liberalism evidenced by the presence of a third racial caste, Creoles of color, between black and white. But even these are a matter of perspective. The religious and racial complexities that distinguished New Orleans from areas of British colonization were not unusual across the Gulf Coast and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil.

This broader hemispheric perspective was an insight that several readers and conference commentators pushed me to consider. In a perfect world of unlimited time and space I would have explored them further. Still, it helped me think about New Orleans in a broader framework that questioned assumptions that we define as typical or representative. It also spoke directly to one of the central ideas that emerged from my research: challenging notions of segregation’s inevitability. A quick look to nations south of New Orleans revealed alternatives to the fixed binary segregation that Americans long assumed to be an idée fixe concerning post-slavery societies. Attention to these broader contexts for the purposes of comparative history and to interrogate questions of American exceptionalism are necessary to better understand American Religious history—especially its manifestations in the South.

Several other issues led in directions I did not envision when I began. My training as a historian was almost entirely in social history. Yet I found myself drawing largely on institutional histories, since both black and white church members maneuvered and manipulated institutions to increase or decrease racial inclusion. Given Professor Dickerson’s original prompting this was perhaps inevitable, but it was a lesson I had to learn several times. Institutional records and histories could be adapted to tell stories other than those of a succession of religious leaders, building projects, or committee structures (and sometimes even these present compelling and instructive evidence). What I have tried to suggest is that institutions, no less than the experiences of those who participate in or outside of them, are part of the project of studying religion.

Another discovery, though certainly not news to historians of race and segregation, was the crucial role of northerners in the emergence and solidification of segregation. Despite my assumption of—and even desire for—southern white culpability, I came to realize that it was only with the complicity and assistance of northerners, whether Catholic or Protestant, that fellowships became segregated. Among the many instances of historical amnesia that plague us, this one bears repetition, especially to students in the North and West who want to exonerate their region from a phenomenon that actually implicated every section.

Researching and writing the book was not without its struggles, many of which I am not convinced I sufficiently resolved and which reviewers have and undoubtedly will continue to notice.

Charles Street, New Orleans, LA, circa. 1902. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [Reproduction number LC-USZ62-91018].

 

   

Like so many others, I sought to write a biracial narrative that faithfully depicted the interaction of black and white Southerners, even as white Southerners pushed for separation. On the Methodist side I was pleased with the interaction I could describe. The Catholic side was more difficult, as nearly all my sources came from white institutions and hierarchies. The voices of black Catholics were much more difficult to come by and thus give equal weight to.

Similarly, the social historian in me wishes I had more voices from the pews. While I would argue that the Methodists I quote were hardly elite—especially those who wrote into the weekly paper that was a major source for the Methodist part of the book—I would have liked to represent better the thinking of the average church member (to the extent that such a figure exists). This lament is even greater on the Catholic side where the sources tended even more to the institutional.

Another frustration, which reviewers have been quick to point out, is the lack of white voices who justified segregation in theological terms. I simply did not find substantive evidence of that, which was perhaps a limitation of focusing on New Orleans. Others have shown how theological justifications for segregation did exist—especially the recent work of Paul Harvey and Edward Blum—but I failed to uncover similar sustained examples among the figures I studied. Rather, they justified their segregationist aims in social instead of religious terms. Whether this is an oversight on my part or on the part of the subjects I studied, remains uncertain.

If I were writing the book now, one of the changes I would have to make is to the epilogue. Baseball as an organizing principle would give way to hurricanes. Katrina laid bare for the world to see the racial and economic divisions that characterize contemporary New Orleans. While churches were not solely responsible for the racial and economic divisions that the world came to know, they certainly contributed to them.

Katrina was not the first hurricane to reveal such inequalities in New Orleans. In 1915, an unnamed hurricane destroyed buildings throughout the city. One was a school that the city’s leading Creoles of Color had operated for over half a century. After the hurricane, the Archdiocese appropriated the school as part of a black parish. It became another under-funded and overcrowded parochial school rather than the elite school and arts center it had once been. The 1915 hurricane also destroyed an uptown parish that was the city’s second church set apart for black Catholics. The black church members had been part of a biracial parish  until 1909, when the congregation built a grand new facility a few blocks away on Carrollton Ave. The week before the new building opened the priest told the parish’s black members they would remain in the old structure to become a new separate black parish. That separate parish was rebuilt following the 1915 hurricane rather than being reintegrated with the other congregation, whose structure survived unscathed.

Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans, LA, circa. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [Reproduction number LC-USZ62-53509].
   

We can only hope that church leaders make better decisions after Katrina than they did following the 1915 storm. In late August 2005, the Archbishop of New Orleans did not offer an auspicious start when he suggested in an unfortunate choice of words that “we face extreme devastation, the likes of which have not [been] felt in this country since the War Between the States.” The record since then has been mixed. By December 2005, the parochial school in the uptown parish noted above (still predominantly but not officially a black parish) was among the first schools to reopen in the entire city. It offered a promising alternative to the underperforming and slow-to-open public schools. But in March 2006, the Archdiocese decided to close St. Augustine’s parish, a historically important church whose construction was largely funded by Creoles of Color and which was long a center of interracial Catholicism. In April, the Archdiocese offered St. Augustine’s an eighteen-month reprieve, although it placed heavy expectations upon the members of the parish to prove its future viability.

In the end, I remain convinced that the story of Methodists and Catholics in New Orleans demonstrates the complicated ways that churches first resisted and then contributed to the rise of segregation. The eventual triumph of segregation must not blind us to the fact that biracial churches remained a source of optimism for many throughout the 1880s. They believed they were setting an example not only for their faith, but also for their nation. Just as a common Methodist or Catholic identity might transcend racial differences, so could a common American citizenship trump racial divisions. The segregation that eventually emerged was neither obvious nor unavoidable to those experiencing the uncertainties of the final decades of the nineteenth century. Rather, the road to segregation in churches, no less than other parts of American society, was a long and highly contested path that was neither inevitable nor continuous with the past.

 

 
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