Desegregation in the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, 1945–1973

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Long before the civil rights movement, African American and white Catholics in Virginia had faced mistrust and even animosity for their religious beliefs from elements of the white Protestant majority. Unwilling to ignite further hostility, the Catholic Church accommodated to Jim Crow in the Old Dominion by operating separate churches and schools for blacks and whites as well as segregated hospitals. But under Bishop Peter L. Ireton (1945–58) the state’s Catholic hierarchy gradually aligned itself behind the integration goals of the emerging civil rights movement, while his successor Bishop John J. Russell (1958–73) championed desegregation of both Catholic and secular institutions. Although the hierarchy’s policies and statements, and supportive action by Catholic Interracial Councils, gave the appearance of strong Catholic support for desegregation, many priests and white laity were indifferent or hostile toward the drive for racial equality. Often lacking attachment to de jure segregation, northern Catholic migrants to northern Virginia and to the state’s military bases partly offset indigenous white Catholic opposition to desegregation. Yet, the relocation of many whites, Catholic and otherwise, to the suburbs in the 1960s and early 1970s left many black and white Catholics as separated by geography as they had once been by diocesan policy. Opposed to discrimination within and without the Catholic Church, many African American Catholics also felt unwelcome among white Catholics and wanted to preserve black Catholic schools and churches as community institutions, while making them more attuned to African American cultural and religious forms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)356-387
Number of pages32
JournalVirginia Magazine of History and Biography
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2009

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