February is Black History Month in the United States, a time when we are all invited to look back at some significant people and events who have brought us all forward. It has also been a month when there has been a great division over a nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Education, a woman who has made her mark in making educational choice available to a wider group of parents.
These two events made my mind wander to a place where these two things seemed to intersect. At least they intersect if your mind wanders in the unpredictable ways that mine does. In my adopted home town of Indianapolis, those twin thoughts intersect in the person of Cardinal Joseph Ritter.
Joseph Ritter was born in 1892 in New Albany, Indiana, a small city just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. One of six children in his German Catholic family, he made up his mind in the seventh grade that he was going to be a priest. He schooled at St. Meinrad Seminary, part of a Benedictine-run monastery in southern Indiana. Ordained in 1917, he began the life of an ordinary parish priest in Indianapolis.
In early 1933 (at the age of just 40) he received the call to become a Bishop, and remained in Indianapolis as Auxiliary Bishop until the following year, when he became the 7th Bishop of Indianapolis upon the death of his predecessor. His title was later changed to Archbishop when the Diocese of Indianapolis was made an Archdiocese in 1944 and to Cardinal in 1961.
In contrast to the pockets of Catholics clustered here and there throughout the southern half of Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan was a hugely influential organization in State politics during the first half of the twentieth century. The Indiana Klan reached its peak in the 1920’s when over half of the General Assembly and the Governor were members. Unlike its counterparts in the south, Indiana’s Klan spent most of its energy fighting the menace of Catholicism. Of course, it was no friend to those of African descent either.
The high schools of the Indianapolis Public Schools system had been integrated for decades, but that changed in 1922 when the system announced the planning for a new high school exclusively for the city’s black youth. Crispus Attucks High School marked the completion of that plan when it opened in 1927. Older basketball fans might remember that Attucks ( via a team led by a young Oscar Robertson) eventually achieved some fame in 1955 by becoming the first all-black school in the nation to win a State Championship.
It was in this environment of hardened segregation that Bishop Ritter found himself in mid 1930’s Indiana. In 1937, Catholic Interracial Council in New York had passed a resolution stating that all children, regardless of race or economic situation, had a God-given right to a Catholic education. It was shortly thereafter that Ritter ordered that every Catholic school in the Diocese (which covered Indianapolis and the entire lower half of Indiana) may no longer be segregated by race.
There is surprisingly little information in print about the level of conflict that ensued following Ritter’s desegregation order, other than some mention of at least one rally by the Klan outside of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis. I can recall reading some years back (likely in the Archdiocesan newspaper) that there was some significant pushback from white Catholics. Ritter, however, would not back down and thus secured his place in Indiana educational history. If there is evidence of another segregated Catholic school system that was desegregated sooner than the fall of 1938, I have not yet learned of it.
Much better documented is the way in which Ritter followed the very same course of action soon after being appointed Archbishop of St. Louis in 1946. Opponents of Ritter’s action pointed out that his order arguably ran afoul of Missouri law as it existed at the time. The Archbishop responded by threatening excommunication for any Catholic who sought to oppose the desegregation in court as some had threatened to do. He is reported to have given as his reason that the cross at the top of each Catholic school should mean something, for every soul was equal in the eyes of Almighty God.
Indiana would go on to enact an anti-segregation law in 1949 and the seminal Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education would be the law of the land by 1954. It is regrettable that in all of the discussion about the history of desegregation in Indiana’s public schools, Bishop Ritter’s courageous early example from the late 1930’s is virtually ignored.
Are there any lessons to draw from this little nibble of Indiana Catholic history? Probably. One is that due to the relatively small African-American population among Catholics in Indiana, the effects of Bishop Ritter’s leadership in desegregation was of limited impact during an era when it was rare for non-Catholics to be found in Catholic elementary and high schools.
A couple more that come to my mind are that not all good ideas for education have originated in the public schools. Finally, this is proof that not all advances in the rights of black Americans had to come from governmental action. Sometimes there are people at the right place and time who just try to do the right thing, and the rest of us benefit. There are plenty of examples where those in the world of Christianity have failed to live up to the standards which we are called to follow. Fortunately there are stories like this to prove that sometimes we can get it right.