Tag Archives: Desegregation

Desegregation in Portsmouth, Virginia

This is the third of our three-part celebration for Black History Month 2022, focusing on elements of African American history within the Daughters of Charity archives collection.  The first part, on the Briscoe family of Emmitsburg, can be found here.  The second part on the St. Euphemia’s School Collection (Emmitsburg, MD) can be found here.

Public schools in the Commonwealth of Virginia were segregated from their creation in 1870.  The Catholic schools held the same policy.

The Daughters of Charity operated three schools in Portsmouth, Virginia in the Hampton Roads area:  St. Paul’s High School, St. Paul’s Elementary School, and Our Lady of Victory School.  On September 8, 1959, this system of segregation, at least in the Catholic schools, came to an end in Portsmouth.

Chapel at Our Lady of Victory School

Twenty new students sat for the entrance examination to St. Paul’s that year.  The examinations were graded anonymously, and those qualifying were admitted, with no regard to race.  Four African American students became the first students to attend a desegregated school in Portsmouth:  Sabine Gordon, Samson Clark, Edward LeBoeuf, and Richard King.

By almost all accounts, the integration of the schools went more smoothly than many in the Commonwealth, which took place after Brown v. Board and in the wake of “Massive Resistance.”  Virginia Klisiewicz, a former Daughter who taught at the school, attested in 2004: 

Apparently, the white children were, sort of, geared to acceptance, and the black children were geared to acceptance.  There wasn’t animosity on either side.  So, the first day of school, our kids went there – they just went to their classrooms – they would, you know, they were certainly oriented, and the white kids, they were happy with it.  I mean, that’s too idealistic, I suppose, and it seems strange that this would’ve worked out the way it did considering the feeling in the South; but it, was a smooth transition.

The high school at Our Lady of Victory closed in 1960.  The elementary school closed four years later.  In this same year, St. Paul’s was rechristened Portsmouth Catholic High School to reflect the consolidation of schools in the area.  An active alumni association for Our Lady of Victory School still holds reunions, and even kept in touch with their Daughter of Charity teachers through the rest of their lives.

In 1970, the Portsmouth Catholic School board reaffirmed its decisions and stood in the face of the “Massive Resistance” and the push by parents opposed to desegregation to send their children to Catholic schools to avoid integration.  In response, the school board announced that “As Christians, we refuse to allow our schools to become  a refuge for those who would flee integrated public schools.”  Father Thomas Caroluzza, board chair, said to the press “I don’t want to accuse people of using our schools as a refuge, but at this point in history, I think we should make things clear to all those interested in private, integrated education so we don’t play games.”

While many alumni have continued to speak highly of their education at Our Lady of Victory, almost certainly better than the segregated public schools offered by the Commonwealth, there is no ambiguity that the doctrine of “separate but equal” would never be true.  It is only through a charism of “service to all” – without distinction – that we can see everybody achieve. 

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The St. Euphemia’s School Collection

This is the second of our three-part celebration for Black History Month 2022, focusing on elements of African American history within the Daughters of Charity archives collection.  The first part, on the Briscoe family of Emmitsburg, can be found here.


[Quote from Provincial Annals, 1878]:  September 19.  A new school, under the name of St. Euphemia’s School, was opened in Emmitsburg for girls, and small boys.  Father White, the pastor, was determined to have the Sisters.

With this note from the Provincial Annals, 1878, a new ministry of the Daughters of Charity began in Emmitsburg, MD.  While this would seem to place the Sisters in competition with themselves and their own long-running St. Joseph’s Academy, St. Euphemia’s served those from the town of Emmitsburg who had different educational needs and financial situation from those who attended the boarding school.

Eight years later, in 1886, St. Euphemia’s began a parallel education program, under one roof but in two separate rooms:

[Sunday April 4, from the 1886 Annals] Sunday too in town Father White announced the opening of his colored school for Tuesday.  But who is to teach it?  The Sisters are next door, but they can hardly assume a new work, and of course, all contingent expenses in the absence of both superiors.  So then is a good deal of little sly laugh and talk as to how Fr. White’s zeal is going to make out.

From 1886, Black and white children were both taught by the same community of Sisters, under the same roof, but in separate spaces.  In 1944, the walls at last came down, integrating education in Frederick County for the first time.  The St. Euphemia’s collection in Emmitsburg is a notable record of both the administration of the school and a record of those students’ lives, both before and after the end of desegregation.

The School and Its Children

The school was located on Green Street, which was later called Depaul Street, in a two-story, brick building.  While St. Joseph’s Academy was a strictly girls’ school, St. Euphemia’s taught both boys and girls.

The 1887 school year is the first instance in which we have an exact number of students attending the school:  137 white students and 40 African American students.  In 1898, it was 183 white and 24 African American.  In 1900, we know it was 110 girls to 73 boys, with no information about the race of any student.

The school had an agreement with Frederick County to receive local support as a school for African American students, since they were barred from attending public schools.  However, according to the Board minutes of 1918, St. Euphemia’s had not received this support for the year, and the financial records indicate this support had been paid sporadically since 1890.  Apparently, it was a task to pester the County on this matter, although it appears to have been distributed more consistently after 1927.  It should be noted that this support per African American student was a fraction of the County’s expenditures for white students.

St. Euphemia’s School Board Minutes, 1918

In the annual meeting of 1943, the Board minutes indicate that enrollment was down to four African American students.  Faced with a teacher shortage for a segregated African American classroom, the School instead made the decision to integrate and ensure that every student could get their elementary education.  Notably, it was the first school in Frederick County to integrate, 10 years before Brown v. Board

The Collection

The collection contains financial and Board documents of the school, the enrollment cards for the white students (valuable for genealogy), and several books of students’ schoolworks from the 1890s, completed as part of the Sisters exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  But the collection also contains the recorded memories of two African American alumni of the school who attended during the days of segregation, as well as some of the sisters.  In 2004, Sister Eleanor Casey made it a point to gather their memories, and they point to both the hope, drive, and self-empowerment that their teachers tried to instill, alongside the indignity and absurdity of segregation.

Kathleen Williams attended St. Euphemia’s in the 1920s and only passed away in 2016 at age 102.  She recalled the hard work that Sister Beata Bartling expected of her students:

Oh, if you didn’t know your spelling.  That was your homework at night.  You had to write each word 25 times.  And I never forgot my spelling.  I can still spell.  Marie [her daughter] has to ask me sometimes how to spell.  Oh, Lord, Sister Beata.  Oh, she was something else.

Mrs. Kathleen Richardson Williams, 2004

Despite this, it is worth noting that, while the archives currently holds nearly 250 report cards for white students at St. Euphemia’s, Sister Eleanor reported that, despite searching, neither she nor others were able to locate the report cards of the African American students.

Barbara Van Brakle Weedon remembers her family’s generational experience at St. Euphemia’s:

And, of course, my father was the youngest son and he had Sister Beata [Bartling] as one of the teachers.  And he always praised Sister Beata.  He was always so grateful because Sister Beata was determined.  She had such respect for the children that she was determined that they were worth something.  That they were going to learn.  That’s all, I remember him talking about Sister Beata, how grateful that he was.

At the same time, the policies of segregation still often applied to the school:

We were all in the one room no matter what grade we were.  And we were not allowed to drink from the water fountain.  We had our own little like an urn in the classroom.  And then we weren’t allowed to use the restrooms.  There was an outhouse outside that we used.  And I think some of the transients used to use the rest [sic] so my cousin and I, Kenny, we painted it.  Cleaned it up and painted it and put a lock on the door.  And that was our, that was our outside little restroom because we couldn’t use the inside.  Then for any of the school plays or anything we couldn’t be in any of [the] school plays.  And when we made our First Communion and Confirmation we always walked together at the end of the line.  So we were, we were separated.  But as kids you never thought it.  We were fortunate because we had good happy homes and I often wondered, you know, what it would be like for children who didn’t have a happy home to go to and to have to go through that all day…

Each interview also provides valuable family and regional history of the Emmitsburg, Gettysburg, and Mount St. Mary’s, particularly of their African American family members.

The End of St. Euphemia’s

In 1956, facing low enrollment, the Daughters closed St. Euphemia’s School and its sister institution, St. Anthony’s.  They were consolidated into Mother Seton School, which remains strong today as the flagship educational institution of the Daughters in Emmitsburg.

The building itself on Depaul Street was converted to apartments in 1985.

Ribbon from the opening of the Schoolhouse Apartments

The St. Euphemia’s collection contains valuable information for genealogists, but more importantly, for an era of education that, thankfully, we are moving past.  Racial segregation, particularly in the education that is meant to provide for the next generation, was, is, and always will be wrong.  What is valuable about this collection is that it provides voice to an institution and to the users of that institution, of Sisters both of their time and of those trying to provide a quality and fair education to a student population who could and would reach far beyond an unfair situation.  One final quote comes from Sister Angela Cool, 2005, and perfectly captures that dichotomy:

One day many years later when talking to my father about how terrible it was that we were separated.  He said, ‘If the Sisters had not taken them they would have had no education, those were the days of segregation, they could not go to the public school.’

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Integrating Parishes: Greensboro

“To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others—to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view. Knowing that the Lord has taken the divine initiative by loving us first, we can boldly go forward, reaching out to others. We must invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out. We must work to form relationships with those we might regularly try to avoid.” (23)

“So many of our parishes are richly diverse, composed of people from various cultures and ethnic groups, such that they can be a model for the whole Church and for the country.” (27)

Open Wide Our Hearts:  The Enduring Call to Love a Pastoral Letter against Racism by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

In 1953, Bishop Vincent Waters of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina ordered all Catholic churches desegregated in the Diocese, followed shortly afterward, in 1955, by the desegregation of Catholic schools.  Over the course of the next twenty years, the impact of desegregation on the Church and the schools was felt across North Carolina.

Since 1928, the Daughters of Charity taught at St. Mary’s School in Greensboro, North Carolina.  In 1949, the school changed its name to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a parish school designated to serve African-American children.  When desegregation began, students started to attend St. Pius X School, leading to a drop in numbers at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School.

In 1972, the difficult decision was made to close the school due to declining enrollment, and the Daughters began to re-examine how best to serve the parish community of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.  That same year, four Daughters arrived at the parish to tackle this challenge.

Letter from Father Robert Clifford, C.M. of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Parish

The first step taken was to reconnect the parish to its roots and change the name back to St. Mary’s.  The next step, in the spirit of Vatican II and the recommendations for lay involvement in the life of a parish, was to create a Parish Council.  This would prove to be even more important in the coming years as the process of desegregation continued within the church and throughout the city.

In 1974, the Diocese of Charlotte, of which the parish was now a part, ended the designation as the African-American parish.  Instead, the parish was to have a defined territory just like all the others in the parish.  The surrounding territory brought together people of different social classes and incomes, as well as brought white and black neighborhoods together for the first time in the parish.

The Daughters of Charity now served at St. Mary’s Center, the social outreach arm of the parish.  Sisters served on the Council, as social workers, directing programs of the Parish, visiting the aged and sick, and working with returning citizens.

First Parish Council meeting, October 3, 1972

According to Sister Agnes Silvestro’s report in 1975, the purpose of the Daughters’ ministries at the parish was defined as follows: 

“St. Mary’s is an integrated parish where staff and parishioners [sic] are working together to become a people pleasing to the Father, a ‘single people,’ a FAITH COMMUNITY.”

She also wrote about the need to balance competing claims to the ownership of the Parish from white and Black members.  African-American members outnumbered white members, yet, according to Sister Agnes, ”whites for the most part [were] more vocal.”

Nonetheless, the Sisters, assisted by the Vincentian priests who ministered to the parish, persisted in their work.  Although the Daughters departed in 1980, they laid out plans for a long-lasting and successful parish.  The interior of the church today has been modernized, but essentially looks much as it did almost 90 years.  From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Parish incorporated even more changes into its community life as immigrant communities from Africa, Asia, and Latin America arrived in the community.

Interior of St. Mary’s Parish today (Source: https://stmarysgreensboro.org/)
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish, 1938

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