Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans
In 2005, Princeton University Press [PUP] published James Bennett's Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans. This was a book that helped pique my interest in religion, race, and New Orleans, and Bennett's work remains one of the best books in the field on religion in New Orleans. PUP’s decision to release a paperback version of the book in 2016 was a timely one. Bennett's Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow in New Orleans tracks racial segregation in New Orleanian Methodist and Catholic churches. New Orleans provides a helpful perspective for American religion. The city's "unique characteristics make it a rich locale for a study of religion and race," but the city is both unique and indicative of larger trends in the study of American religion (6). This book clearly illustrates how the institutionalized racial hierarchy of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was not inevitable. Instead of immediately segregating, these two large Christian communities remained racially integrated in New Orleans until post-Reconstruction and the turn of the twentieth century. The struggles of New Orleans Methodists and Catholics to remain racially integrated demonstrate the variety of ways black Christians have demanded racial equality, and complicate the historiography on southern religion and race.
The first four chapters track the move from interracial Methodism to segregated Methodism in New Orleans. Following the Civil War, some blacks embraced the black Methodist denominations but many chose to remain in the Methodist Episcopal Church [MEC]. Black, and to a lesser extent white members of the MEC, resisted the racialization of the church and supported racial integration. They believed that racial integration in the churches would influence society's view of race, and ultimately help transcend racism. However, the institution allowed local congregations to determine their racial inclusivity, and this would not be successful in the long run. White Methodists' "desire to conciliate with white Southerners was the most common explanation for the growing ME acceptance of racial separation" (78). With the failure of interracial Methodism, black members of the MEC were forced to renegotiate their identity. Some blacks turned to class to try to encourage interracial alliances but were unsuccessful. White Methodist leaders argued that racial separation "was a question of institutional expediency and social conformity rather than one with theological or moral implications" (126). Despite these disappointments, black members stayed with their denomination, convinced that the MEC preached a message of racial equality and, though flawed, remained their best bet.
The last three chapters track the move from antebellum New Orleans's interracial Catholicism to its early twentieth century segregated Catholicism. The strength of interracial Catholicism came from the population of free blacks, or Creoles of color—the result of interracial liaisons during the French colonial period. Following the Civil War, the Second Plenary Council decided to leave racial segregation as a local choice, and New Orleans remained integrated, in part, due to a clerical shortage and due to habit. The Church remained largely silent on segregation and issued no calls for racial equality. Though the Catholic Church eventually pushed for racial segregation, black Catholics in New Orleans remained hopeful that their city would remain integrated. Segregation began small, as blacks were moved to separate pews, and then in 1895 the doors of St. Katherine's, the first black national parish, opened. St. Katherine's was unpopular among the city's black population, who largely preferred to remain in integrated parishes rather than allow their religion to also fall victim to segregation. Like the New Orleans black Methodists, black Catholics were forced to renegotiate their identity following the implementation of religious segregation. Some local white Catholics hostilely marginalized black Catholics, and Church hierarchy supported segregated parishes in order to paternalistically "protect" black Catholics. Coming off the Americanist controversy, the clergy was socially conservative and thus followed suit with southern culture.
Bennett's book is an institutional history, focusing on the actions of large institutional authorities and leaders as opposed to everyday people. This is due to Bennett's source base; he consults documentary material from ministers, priests, and religious newspaper editors. Research on how the laity and everyday believers responded to religious and racial segregation will continue to make a helpful complement and counterpoint to Bennett's important work. The focus on interracial baseball in Religion and the Rise of Jim Crow's epilogue begins to make the connection between the everyday practice of religion and the institutions that segregated their parishioners. The interracial baseball competitions within either the Catholic or Methodist communities now became Jim Crow games—interdenominational and uni-racial affairs with black Catholics no longer playing against white Catholics but only black Methodists. This baseball anecdote is indicative of why Bennett's book much deserved this paperback release. Tracking the shift from interracial religious institutions to Jim Crow churches reveals much about the complicated intersections of religion and race in American history and culture.
Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.
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