The National Catholic Review
Jim McDermott

Look into any book about the history of racial integration in the United States, and you will almost certainly find dramatic stories about bus boycotts and Rosa Parks; Freedom Riders, voter registration and Emmett Till; Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery; and the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. What you will probably not find is an account of the low-key integration in 1954 of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., the oldest continuously operating Catholic college in the South and, at 176 years, the third oldest Jesuit school in the United States.

 

But King himself was well aware of the story. In his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail, King criticized the South’s white moderates for being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and the many white clergymen who would not speak out in favor of integration. “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro,” King writes, “I have watched white churchmen stand on the sidelines and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” Throughout the South he could find only a few examples of white religious people doing the right thing: the brave few who marched with and spoke out about the movement; a white preacher who had recently integrated his parish; and Spring Hill College. “I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago,” writes King.

His praise had good grounds: Spring Hill was the first college in Alabama to integrate its student body, and it did so before Brown v. Board of Education called for change. Achieved quietly, with steely, sustained concern for both justice and the common good, Spring Hill’s work in integration is an undiscovered jewel.

Two Heavens

In the years following World War II, Spring Hill College, with an enrollment of 800, all male, was hardly a hotbed of radicalism. In the memories of many alums, these were idyllic years, filled with stories of skinny-dipping in a nearby lake and trying to sneak past the Jesuit prefects to go see the girls with your pals. Andrew McLaughlin, class of ’53, recalled: “There were no secrets; everybody knew everybody. It was a wonderful place.”

Though Mobile itself was far ahead of the times on issues like busing and the vote, discrimination was still a reality. When McLaughlin first arrived from New Jersey at age 17, he was struck to see black people on the sidewalk bow their heads and step into the street to let him pass. James Fallon, who studied at Spring Hill as a Jesuit scholastic in the 1950’s, remembers lines drawn on some sidewalks downtown that demarcated how close to the curb and the gutter African-Americans had to walk. Facilities were segregated and so were the churches. One black Baptist minister told Fallon of being invited by a white minister to his church, only to be left standing outside. He “listened through the back windows, and the white preacher talked about there being two heavens, one for blacks, one for whites.”

The effects of prejudice went deep. McLaughlin recalls a fellow athlete, “one of the nicest men I ever met in my life,” who at a basketball tournament in Jersey City found he could not bring himself to compete against a team with a black player. “He stayed with me for three days at my house over in Jersey, and those were the three most tortured days of his life. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t accept and play against the black fella. But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.”

The early engine for social change at Spring Hill was the college president, W. Patrick Donnelly, S.J. A native of Augusta, Ga., Donnelly was “very low key,” remembers Charles Boyle, ’50, later dean and now archivist of the college, “a very down-to-earth kind of person, no pretenses, no pretensions. Just a very likeable, ordinary kind of guy.” And yet, as president of the college and rector of the Jesuit community from 1946 to 1952, Father Donnelly’s social views were anything but ordinary. In his 1948 address to graduates, Donnelly told the students that civil rights were a necessary step for a country that wished to fight for democracy. “It would hardly be consistent for me to speak of world citizenship,” he said, “criticize and denounce Stalin’s Russia—as the very antithesis of democracy—and then lapse into silence where the creed and business of democracy touches us most closely—in our beloved Southland, in our great state, in our beautiful city.” The federal government had urged the educational institutions to promote and develop democracy, Donnelly pointed out, yet in the matter of African-Americans, “so far I hear only silence.”

With that, Donnelly turned to Spring Hill: “Let Spring Hill College break that silence.... Civil Rights? Spring Hill College is for them! For ourselves and for every other citizen, regardless of creed or color. Who, may I ask, can be for real democracy and stand against them?” Donnelly’s comments foreshadowed those of King in prison: “Prudence: It is a cardinal virtue, incumbent upon all parties and upon every man, but it must never be thrown up as a barricade to block civil justice and become an alibi for doing nothing. If prudence is our need, then let us humbly ask heaven for its bestowal, strive to practice it, and proceed.”

And Donnelly did proceed. He desegregated the school’s summer sessions, enabling African-American teachers to obtain recertification and African-American nuns to earn degrees. Furthermore in both 1948 and 1952, as part of his semiannual letter to the superior general of the Society of Jesus, John Baptist Janssens, Donnelly wrote about “the cause of the Negro,” calling it in 1948 “perhaps the largest political question and social question that concerns the South.” In response the general praised Donnelly and his fellow Jesuits for their efforts to improve the lives of black people. The problem, wrote Janssens, calls “not only for patience and prudence, but also for courage.”

Still, the integration of the day school would not take place immediately. Notes from a meeting of Donnelly with his Jesuit consultors in May 1949 indicate that an African-American student applied for day enrollment that spring. But enough of the consultors considered the timing “inopportune” that the student was turned down. When another African-American applied in 1951, Donnelly, according to the notes, was “much in favor of accepting the application, saying the time is propitious.” Again he was rebuffed by consultors, who felt the timing was not right. They rejected the application.

Wise as a Serpent

In 1952 Donnelly finished his six-year term as president/ rector of Spring Hill and became president/rector of Loyola University of the South in New Orleans. (In one of his first acts there, he desegregated the law school, accepting two African-American applicants.) With Donnelly’s departure from Spring Hill, integration became the job of the new president, Andrew Cannon Smith, S.J., the longtime dean of the college. Born in Natchez, Miss., Smith was a shortish, stocky man, balding, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and a sinister smile that froze many a student’s heart. They called him “Smilin’ Jack,” “Cannonball” and “Snake.” He was known for his intellect and his quick wit. “He could cut you down with an insult without you even knowing it,” remembers William Rimes, S.J., a student at the time. Those students who knew him found him at once “first rate” (Boyle), “very fair and very direct” (Fallon) and “a pain in the ass” (Gerard Rubin, ’57, later chairman of Spring Hill’s board).

As president and rector, Smith moved the integration issue forward in a number of ways. With Archbishop Thomas Toolen’s permission, Smith rehired Albert Foley, S.J., a sociology professor who had been thrown out of the diocese in the 1940’s for his efforts to promote integration. Smith also replaced the reading of Scripture during meals in the Jesuit dining room with readings from the autobiography of John LaFarge, S.J., a longtime proponent of integration. Foley wrote at the time, “The sane and sober account is having some noticeable impact on the otherwise grim faculty, who are still Confederate officers as far as the race question is concerned.”

According to the records of consultors’ meetings, African-Americans would not be considered for acceptance into Spring Hill in 1953 because the proposed change came too soon on the heels of the introduction of women (in 1952). Yet at the same meeting Smith gave permission for black colleges to be invited to an upcoming debate tournament, with the proviso that all schools be informed: “After some discussion it was thought best to indicate to all schools invited that some were Negro—or that Negro colleges were being invited, otherwise the College might be responsible for placing others in a very embarrassing position.”

That combination of taking steps toward integration while keeping in mind the ramifications for others and for society would characterize Smith’s approach. Spring Hill College would integrate, while keeping in mind the issues of the community as a whole. Smith’s courage would be guided by discretion and charity.

Quietly Changing Course

The notes of Spring Hill College’s consultors’ meeting of May 7, 1954, record that the final item on the agenda was an application for admission received from one Julia Ponquinette, a young African-American woman from the area, who wanted to transfer to Spring Hill from Loyola University in Chicago. On past occasions, the topic of admitting an African-American was presented in some detail and with ambivalence; here, the consultors’ decision was delivered in one brief, almost romantic sentence: “Consultors thought this a good one to begin the great experiment into the new world in the South.” With that, the doors to integration opened. Nine African-American students would come to Spring Hill the following fall.

Ten days after Spring Hill’s decision, the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. At graduation, Smith praised the ruling: “It goes without saying that this historic college, always the champion of social justice, stands ready to play its part....” At the same time, Smith did not use the opportunity to announce that Spring Hill had accepted its first black day student.

A similar reticence would characterize Smith’s way of proceeding the following term. In September 1954 The Mobile Register inquired whether it was true that African-Americans had been admitted to the day school. Smith responded, “I presume there are some in the classes.” The Register’s report continues: “He said he did not know how many were admitted, adding, ‘We have never asked them if they were white or Negro. We are not making an issue of it.’”

On the topic of integration, Smith would not give interviews. Nor did he allow reporters on campus. In contrast to the decision to make Spring Hill coeducational in 1952, neither new nor returning students and staff were informed about the change. And while two years earlier the school newspaper, The Springhillian, had “a picture of a coed on virtually every front page,” recalls Boyle, the paper offered not one photograph that included African-American students until the following May, and it published no stories on the topic. When in February 1956 The Springhillian’s editor, Brian Daly, was encouraged by a professional journalist to be coauthor of a piece about Spring Hill’s integration for Collier’s with Robert Buchanan, an African-American columnist for the school paper and Daly’s good friend, Smith denied permission. In an interview with Charles S. Padgett, now a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who wrote a disssertation on the racial integration of Spring Hill College, Daly recalled Smith’s words: “We don’t mention it, Brian. That’s the whole key here. We don’t say a thing.” As Boyle states, “His approach to the whole thing was silence.”

There is no doubt that Smith’s decision rankled some in town and may have affected donations. Foley recalls one alumnus’s complaint that “the alumni had worked for years to get the college to a point where it was a high-class, socially respectable school, and ‘now the administration hits us across the face with this bull-whip.’” But there was no negative press, no protesting and no significant public response.

 

Small, Daily Choices

Smith opened Spring Hill to black students, but the real work of integration involved the small, daily choices made by both black and white members of the school community. Many of the African-American students ate together in the campus snack bar. But when they heard it had begun to be called “the n— corner,” Bernard Gayle, ’59, recalled in an interview with Padgett, “we got together as a group and decided, ‘Look, the word is out. We know what they call where we collect, so let’s make an effort on our own to go sit with them.’” Black and white students also chose to make contact with one another as they stood near the college gate on Old Shell Road seeking rides, and through class. White students would drive into the black neighborhood on occasion, looking for a typewriter or help with homework. Some students even developed friendships; Fannie Motley and white classmate Theresa Russell used to shop together downtown, shocking bystanders.

In 1955, a year after integration, Foley wrote a report on the status of integration at Spring Hill based on in-depth interviews with 14 of the African-American students at the school and some of their white peers. On the surface the white students surveyed seemed unfazed by the addition of black students to the campus. When asked, “What do you think of the policy of admitting Negroes to Spring Hill College,” Foley reports, “most of the students didn’t seem to care one way or another.” Nor did many express concern about the possibility of black students living in the residence halls. But when the question was rephrased to bring out whether the student would be comfortable with a black student as a roommate, all were opposed. Likewise, only one said he “would accept Negroes at social gatherings such as dances, parties, etc.” The rest indicated they were either indifferent or opposed. One student wrote, “God made different kinds of birds. Now although all these different kinds of birds are birds, God did not intend them to associate with or breed outside of their own kind. So it is with humans….” When asked whether they would accept a black student in “their fraternity or own small group of friends,” all said no. For at least one student, it turned on a practical concern: “If there was a Negro in our fraternity, we would have a hard time trying to find a place [off campus] where we could have a party.”

Still, black students surveyed indicated that they felt generally well received and “noted that no segregation is practiced in the seating arrangements or in the lounge rooms,” and felt well treated in the bookstore, in bathrooms, in the cafeteria. Most indicated they felt comfortable joining or not joining campus events, and 6 of 14 said they were involved in a nonclass activity. A few had gone to school or organization socials; at the same time, none had been invited to off-campus events, a significant form of student activity. A few students had been victims of racist remarks. One indicated that white students who befriended them were sometimes labeled “n— lover.”

Some black students found it nerve-wracking to be in a place where they stood out. Speaking to Padgett, Ella Dixon recalls registration: “I was afraid. I remember standing in line with a girl who…ended up being in the education department and was super nice.... But I was so sick before she started talking, because I was just getting butterflies standing there in that line with all of these strange-looking people.”

Even so, a number of the students thrived. Elbert Lalande, ’57, served as Foley’s secretary and helped with the integration survey. In his senior year he was inducted into Alpha Sigma Nu, the national honor society of the Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and was chosen as one of the yearbook’s “Campus Personalities,” complete with a photo and brief description. Robert Buchanan, ’57, was “one of the most popular students on campus,” according to Daly. He became a music columnist for The Springhillian, as well as a writer and later an editor for The Motley, Spring Hill’s quarterly literary review.

For all her initial discomfort, Ella Dixon, ’59, was so good in French that fellow students came to her for help. Julia Ponquinette, ’58, the first African-American student the school accepted, was inducted into the National Honor Society for Biology. And Fannie Motley, who was married and had two children, told Padgett in an interview that several of her classmates asked her to stop performing so well, because it was showing them up. Their issue, however, was not Motley’s race but her personal situation. She remembers the teacher telling the class, “If Mrs. Motley can do all these assignments and get them in on time with a husband, two small children, and a home to care for, the rest of you with no such responsibilities surely are expected to do so.” A transfer student, Motley would graduate in May 1956, the first African-American in Alabama to matriculate from a previously all-white college. Her story would be covered not only by the Mobile press, but The New York Times, Time Magazine and Jet. She would also be one of nine students at Spring Hill to graduate that year with honors.

In just two years, Spring Hill had taken great strides while avoiding social strife. But in the South, temsions over integration were growing. While much had been achieved, Spring Hill’s most difficult steps lay still ahead.

Next week, Part Two: The Klan

Jim McDermott, S.J., is an associate editor of America. This is the first in a two-part series.