Integration at Saint Louis University
Claude Heithaus, S.J., made history with his College Church homily about race, which helped spur Saint Louis University to establish a policy integrating its student body.
But he did not act alone, nor was he the first to raise the issue of integration at SLU.
St. Louis's black community, as well as other Jesuits at the University, played vital roles in influencing the mindset of Catholic leaders and changing education policies in the region.
Two Students Admitted - Another Turned Away
SLU's first black student, Henry Schmandt, was admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 1935, nine years before Heithaus' sermon. And in 1939, Felicia Stevens Alexander became the first African American woman to enroll at SLU when she was admitted to a fellowship program at the then School of Social Service.
"The School of Social Service anticipated other schools in the University in racial desegregation," wrote William Faherty, S.J., author of Better the Dream, a history of SLU through 1968. "Unfortunately, this did not begin an immediate trend throughout the University."
In fact, in 1942 Charles Anderson, a Catholic African-American teacher, also applied to SLU but was denied admission. He appealed to then Archbishop John J. Glennon, who did not respond.
Later that year, Anderson took his cause to SLU students, publishing a poster that read: "Millions of negroes in this country think of our church as a white man's church - a Jim Crow church. The true church of Christ belongs to no race or people or language."
By that time, SLU - and the Catholic Church in the United States - had been grappling with the idea of desegregation for years.
The Start of Black History at SLU
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Vatican insisted that U.S. hierarchy address issues of racism. But in 1911, SLU's Board of Trustees minutes reported: "The question of receiving Negroes into the classes of the University was discussed and that action was deferred."
It wasn't until 1941, when interim president Robert Kelley, S.J., named a committee of seven men, that University leadership began to consider racial integration.
Faherty noted that at that time, "No Negro person could patronize the restaurants, hotels, or theatres in the Saint Louis University environs. Had the University acted ... [to end segregation], it would have been pioneering."
When the committee reported back, it recommended against a University-wide desegregation policy. It did, however, approve a request by medical school dean Alphonse M. Schwitalla to accept black students on a trial-basis.
Within two weeks, the medical school's administrative board voted five-to-four in favor of admitting black students. Schwitalla, however, withdrew his original request.
It was in that environment that SLU Jesuit John Markoe, S.J. met African-American mother Mattie Williams, who told him that her daughter Ethel had hoped to attend SLU, "but the school was closed to her because she was a Negro."
Behind the Scenes of the Heithaus Sermon
Williams' story prompted a new meeting with university regents, as well as a letter to 200 alumni in an effort to determine if they would support racial integration. But by the end of that lengthy meeting, only two of the 15 officials in attendance supported admitting African-American students. The others argued that racial integration couldn't be done - it would lower standards and drive away all the white students.
Markoe did not accept this response. He circulated copies of the president's letter to alumni among faculty members and the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where it was published.
The following February, Heithaus, who had long favored integration, delivered his sermon. The homily led to so much rancor, Heithaus was ultimately transferred to an Army base in Kansas.
That April, five African Americans - two undergraduates and three graduate students - were admitted to SLU, and within the year, a new policy that integrated the University was in place.
Integration Comes to St. Louis Catholic Schools
SLU became the first higher institution in a former slave state to enact a policy of racial integration, with the rest of Catholic schools not far behind.
In 1947, 100 years after Missouri instituted a law forbidding anyone from teaching African Americans to read and write and seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court made its historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter formally desegregated St. Louis Catholic schools.