Current headlines might have you believe that no one, at least no white person, in Chicago ever noticed that the city had a race problem. Not so—as Karen Johnson’s history, One in Christ, describes and amply documents. In the fifty years following World War I and the murderous 1919 race riot, a small number of Chicago Catholics, black and white, took notice. Segregated, crowded, dilapidated, and over-priced housing for blacks was an obvious but difficult place to start. Jobs, education, and the demands of urban life were challenges for rural southern black migrants in particular. These Catholic activists, who are the primary focus of One in Christ, were always a “minority,” to use Johnson’s descriptive. They were Catholics in a Protestant culture, activists in ia local church suffused with racial prejudice, and the blacks among them suffered discrimination in both church and society. Her recurring image of minorities within a minority underscores the complexity of Chicago’s racial dynamic and the challenge in tackling it.
Johnson begins with Arthur Falls, born in 1901 to a middle-class, African-American, Catholic family in Chicago. By his death in 2000, Falls had had a long and active life as a physician and vigorous advocate of “interracialism,” the proposition that blacks and whites should work together to improve the lives of blacks confined to Bronzeville, the city’s South Side ghetto. When Falls was born, Chicago was home to a small number of African Americans (six hundred of whom were Catholic), so small as to be unremarked. Over Falls’s lifetime their numbers grew dramatically. In 1910, blacks were 2 percent of the city’s population; by 1960, it had increased to 25 percent. The interracialists’ fellow Catholics noticed and often resented that demographic transformation.
The small coterie of Catholic activists followed in the book were mostly white; sometimes Falls worked with them, sometimes not. Johnson suggests that this tension gave Falls a moral claim on their attention and sometimes that of church leaders. She sums it up in asking: Did white activists work for better conditions along with or for blacks? Though not the liveliest writer, Johnson like a documentary filmmaker captures with cameo appearances and quick shots a number of these activists and their decades-long effort as a tiny minority to rally their fellow Catholics against racial injustice.
Within the Catholic minority were African Americans like the Falls family who had direct experience of segregation—in the church no less than elsewhere. Their Catholic beliefs spurred their efforts to break the color barrier: to worship in “white” parishes, to send their children to Catholic schools and their sick to Catholic hospitals. Falls appealed to white Catholics who shared his religious beliefs, and then to fellow blacks in groups like the Urban League who shared his goals but not his religion. These alliances had their own biases, as Johnson discusses, especially the middle-class condescension of established blacks toward the manners and mores of immigrants from the rural south. With his involvement in many communities and groups, Falls pressed the borders of reform in several directions, sometimes discomfiting both church leaders and close collaborators.
As Johnson points out, Catholics, whether black or white, were also a minority, unwelcome in Protestant America. In the early decades of the twentieth century the U.S. Catholic Church absorbed millions of Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Czech, and other European immigrants. To meet their needs in Chicago, Archbishop George Mundelein created national parishes, taking advantage of natural communities of language and culture. The Falls family and other African Americans were consigned, over their objections, to a black “national parish.” In creating Catholic enclaves (richly described and analyzed in John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries), Mundelein in effect reinforced white-only neighborhoods and schools. In time, the parish itself became a structural barrier to the interracialism that Catholic activists sought to define and implement.
Activists faced other hurdles. In the pre-Vatican II church, bishops were effectively the singular authority in decisions about parishes, the clergy, and the role of the laity. Even when without biases themselves, the archbishops of Chicago, at least until the arrival of Albert Meyer in 1958, had a strictly pastoral view of blacks: yes, saving souls and conversion were promoted, and yes, blacks should have a parish or two, and yes, those parishes should have schools for black Catholic children. Where charity was needed, it should be given. But episcopal priorities did not extend to reprimanding parishes that barred blacks, or to high schools that refused black students, or hospitals that would not accept black doctors, like Falls, or his black patients. However much priests understood the needs of black parishioners and neighbors, they were controlled and restrained by their archbishops. Laymen and -women working in the name of the church for racial justice operated under the same restraints—or joined a secular organization.