This is a collection of oral histories of African Americans in Natchez, Mississippi during the days of Jim Crow laws. There are very few Roman Catholics in the Southern states of the U.S.; there are even fewer African American Roman Catholics in the South. Danny Duncan Collum and his helpers interviewed several blacks about life in Natchez during those days before segregation ended, days when blacks could not use the same bathrooms, water fountains, restaurants, seating on buses, or other places like whites. There were signs posted at water fountains that would say “for Whites only” or “for Coloreds only”; for younger Americans, this seems like something from another planet. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that segregation was ended, not an easy task and one many can say has not been completed yet.
Collum and his group, with the help of the Glenmary Research Center (which works as a missionary order of priests, brothers and sisters, especially in the poor areas of the South) collected this history of a particular black Catholic community in the South, that of Holy Family Catholic Church, a parish founded in 1890. The Catholic Church in some regions of the South was ahead of the Civil Rights Movement. Several bishops would not tolerate segregation in churches or schools. This did not please many White Catholics, but the bishops and others stood their ground. The Catholic Church in Natchez, Mississippi is an example of Catholic clergy and religious refusing to tolerate segregation; many of them helped local blacks integrate within the community.
The parish served as the local headquarters for the NAACP for years. The pastor, who was white, was an active member of this organization. Some clergy were threatened with their lives, but they refused to back down. These Catholic clergy and religious served as examples to other white Catholics to join them in integrating society. The Catholic schools were integrated, and the teachers - usually religious sisters - would encourage their black students to act and be treated as equals. Such encouragement helped many of those interviewed here to stand up for their rights but to treat others as equals, too.
Many of the interviews are written just as the person spoke, which is not demeaning but gives the reader a more up-close firsthand account of events in Natchez. Some of those interviewed are not Roman Catholics; some are even Protestant ministers. They testify to what the Catholic Church did to help the Civil Rights Movement. This book is highly recommended to those interested in Catholic Church history in the South, especially in regards with African American Catholics, or to those interested in the days before and after the Civil Rights Movement.
Danny Duncan Collum is an assistant professor at Kentucky State University and served as an assistant editor of the journal Sojourners, which he still contributes to. He also is the author of Black and White Together (1996) and African Americans in the Spanish Civil War (1991).