Catholics played role in civil rights movement

This is one of four panels displaying the history of the Civil Rights Movement nationally and in Davenport. The exhibit opens Jan. 16 at the Putnam Museum in Davenport. The exhibit is part of a larger project on civil rights in Davenport. Catholics played a big role in advancing civil rights in Davenport. (Photo by Barb Arland-Fye)

By Barb Arland-Fye

DAVENPORT — A 1963 newspaper photograph offers a glimpse of the role Catholics played in Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement. Taken in Davenport shortly before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it shows a racially diverse crowd holding signs that read “Catholic Interracial Council,” “Holy Family Parish,” “St. Anthony Parish,” “Freedom Now,” “Civil Rights.” Some signs call for fair housing and jobs.

The photo is included in a new exhibit — opening Jan. 16 at the Putnam Museum in Davenport — that underscores Catholics’ commitment to social justice. A label on one of the exhibit’s panels, explaining the formation of the Catholic Interracial Council in 1957, states: “The CIC is the driving force for Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement. In most cities, the movement drew leaders from national organizations and predominantly black, especially Baptist churches. The CIC makes Davenport’s story unique.”

A partnership of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, Putnam Museum and St. Ambrose University in Davenport, with funding from Humanities Iowa, brought the exhibit to fruition. Titled “Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement 1945-1974,” the exhibit features four panels on local and national history as well as a re-creation of the barber-beauty shop that civil rights activists Charles and Ann Toney operated. The barber-beauty shop was an informal gathering place for Davenport civil rights activities. Charles Toney, now deceased, was a founder of the Catholic Interracial Council and led it from 1959-69.

Beyond the exhibit is a larger project whose components include a workshop for teachers (held last summer), a traveling exhibit to libraries and schools, a walking tour and markers at seven sites where civil rights activities took place. St. Anthony’s Church, a gathering point for the “March on Davenport,” will feature one of the seven markers to be unveiled this spring. The other sites are the Toney home, Toney barber-beauty shop, Cook’s Point, LeClaire Park Band Shell, Natatorium and Colonial Fountain.


The project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Catholic civil rights activist Jack Schneiders hadn’t shared his personal archives on issues that shaped the movement — discriminatory practices in Davenport concerning jobs, housing, law enforcement, and refusal of businesses to serve or hire people of color. Substandard housing was a major focus of the CIC and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Schneiders held leadership positions in both organizations.

Schneiders called the Davenport Civil Rights Commission several years ago, and Executive Director Judy Morrell asked him to show her a sample of his collection. After he did, “I thought, somebody needs to preserve this,” Morrell said. A college student interning at City Hall, where Morrell’s office is located, recommended she contact his former history instructor, Art Pitz. He expressed interest, as did the Putnam.

“It happened really so fortuitously. All of these things fell into line,” Morrell said. Pitz, scholar in residence at St. Ambrose and the exhibit’s guest curator, instructed his students to interview key players in the civil rights movement such as William Cribbs, Msgr. Marvin Mottet, Ernie Rodriguez and Jack Schneiders. Pitz incorporated other research into the exhibit, including two articles from the Annals of Iowa written by Father George McDaniel, chancellor of the Davenport Diocese.

Through the research process, Pitz came to appreciate the inspiration of two St. Ambrose professors — Fathers Ed and Bill O’Connor — who were actively involved in Catholic social action from the 1940s-60s and “energized a whole generation of students,” he said.

For example, in 1949 the Inter-Racial Club collected and brought food for Christmas to Mexican-American families living in deplorable conditions at Cook’s Point. That experience led to the students organizing the Catholic League for Social Action, which was renamed League for Social Justice in 1951. When residents of Cook’s Point faced eviction, the group organized students and faculty to find or create decent housing for the residents, Pitz said.

The League for Social Justice also produced a small booklet in 1951 called “Citizen 2nd Class.” It documented discrimination and segregation based on a 1947 survey by the Inter-Racial Club. The club had interviewed doctors’ offices, restaurants, apartments and other places to determine their attitudes toward black people.

“The leadership of St. Ambrose’s faculty and students was crucial in getting us started in the civil rights movement,” observed Msgr. Mottet, who was one of the students who helped move and build homes for Cook’s Point residents. Now approaching 80, he has spent his priesthood working for social justice and civil rights. He remembers being appointed by Bishop Ralph Hayes to serve as chaplain of the Catholic Interracial Council. “I went to him every year to give a report and to get his blessing,” Msgr. Mottet said. “We made him nervous sometimes because of what we were doing. He was very supportive, but we did make him nervous.”

Msgr. Mottet says he’s grateful for the work being done to preserve Davenport’s civil rights history. “I think it’s important. Even the young black kids don’t know the price that was paid. Three white ministers lost their jobs for being involved with civil rights,” he said.

 “The big thing was the housing issue. A lot of people were coming in from the South and housing was a real problem,” said Cribbs, who was a president of the NAACP. Blacks were confined to a ghetto in the heart of Davenport. “No black folks lived anywhere else. So housing was a big thing — trying to get the city to pass a fair housing law.”

“The Catholic Interracial Council was the major impetus in changing the terrible housing conditions in Davenport,” Morrell of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission said. “I’m Catholic. I’m very proud of the contributions they made.”

If you go:

What: Davenport Civil Rights Movement 1945-1974 exhibit

When: Jan. 16-March 28, 2010

Where: The Putnam Museum, 1717 West 12th St., Davenport

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adult, $6; Senior (60+) $5; Child (3-12) $4.

Grant, funding donors

Humanities Iowa provided a matching grant toward the Putnam Museum exhibit that features Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement 1945-1974, said Eunice Schlichting, the museum’s chief curator.

The exhibit is part of a larger project that also includes specially made markers that will be unveiled this spring at seven locations in Davenport where civil rights activities occurred. Funding for those markers comes from the Diocese of Davenport, St. Ambrose University in Davenport, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Riverboat Development Authority (RDA) and several private donations.

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