- The Catholic Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham and Parochial School Desegregation, 1962–1969
In September 1963, Catholic diocesan newspapers in Tennessee, South Carolina, and as far away as Texas and Virginia reported that St. Joseph's, a previously all-African American Catholic school in Huntsville, had admitted twelve white students and had thus become the first desegregated elementary school in Alabama. Father Mark Sterbenz, the white Salvatorian (Society of the Divine Savior) pastor of St. Joseph's Mission, told reporters that desegregation had occurred "very quietly and very smoothly" with "no trouble." The event was newsworthy because white parents had initiated desegregation by asking Sterbenz if they could enroll their children, and Governor George C. Wallace had closed the city's public schools that day to prevent their desegregation under a federal court order. Wallace telephoned Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen of the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham asking him to postpone the opening of St. Joseph's, but Toolen refused. Many of the white parents who sent their children to St. Joseph's had moved from outside the South to work in Huntsville's federal military installations, and they did not share the segregationist sentiment of most southern whites, including Catholics. As Huntsville's white Catholic school was already full, they applied to St. Joseph's to ensure that their children received a Catholic education.1 [End Page 24]
Unreported, but perhaps of greater significance because it affected more schools, the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham, which included all of Alabama and ten counties in northwest Florida, also peacefully desegregated several grades in its high schools and elementary schools in Pensacola that month. Unlike in Huntsville, a sustained campaign by African American Catholics in Pensacola, the county seat and largest city in Escambia County, exerted pressure on the diocese to begin desegregating the city's Catholic schools. The Southern Field Service of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice (NCCIJ) played an instrumental behind-the-scenes role in stimulating, encouraging and advising Black Catholics in their campaign and by working with John P. "Jack" Sisson, a White Catholic Pensacola native, who was committed to desegregating the city. Enlisted by Sisson, several White Catholics crossed the racial divide and joined Black Catholics in their attempts to pressure and persuade Toolen to overturn Catholic school segregation. The Southern Field Service sought to replicate the Pensacola model in Catholic communities in Birmingham and Mobile but made little progress, although a few Black Catholics applied for admittance to White Catholic schools in both cities.2 [End Page 25]
In a successful effort to minimize and deflect segregationist criticism from within and outside Catholic ranks and to deter segregationists from withdrawing their children from Catholic schools, Toolen authorized Catholic school desegregation in Pensacola and Huntsville only when they were subject to federal court-ordered public school desegregation. He delayed acting in Pensacola until 1963, a year after public school desegregation had occurred without public disorder. Toolen ordered the desegregation of his diocese's other Catholic schools in 1964 to coincide with federally mandated public school desegregation in other Alabama school districts. Like public schools in the diocese, he ensured that Catholic school desegregation was limited. Although Black Catholic schools had a large (often a majority) non-Catholic enrollment, Toolen decreed that only those who were Catholic could attend a Catholic school with children of another race. Religious orders of sisters and priests, who taught in Black Catholic schools, urged him to desegregate Catholic education. Financial pressures and a shortage of vocations, as well as the pursuit of desegregation, also motivated Toolen to begin dismantling the diocese's dual school system. Although the diocese had created a school system which ensured that Black Catholic schools were less funded and equipped than White schools, the archbishop adopted a desegregation policy that closed Black schools on the grounds that they had inferior facilities, and he did not consider the wishes of African Americans. Although opposed to segregation and discrimination, many African Americans wanted to keep traditionally Black Catholic schools open. They valued them for the education and values their dedicated staff, primarily sisters and priests, imparted to their students, and they treasured them as community institutions.3 [End...