Calling for racial justice in the 1950s: A story from the Messenger archives


(February marks Black History Month, and the launch of a series on racial justice in The Catholic Messenger. Our series begins with a historical perspective by historian Tim Walch, a member of the Messenger’s Board of Directors.)

By Timothy Walch
For The Catholic Messenger

“Black lives matter” — this social justice movement is much on our minds these days. It may come as a surprise, however, that racial equity has been an issue in the Diocese of Dav­enport going back to the 1950s. The archives of The Catholic Messenger give us a clear perspective on the long road to where we are today.

In truth, race relations in Davenport were almost nonexistent only a generation ago. In 1950, for example, people of color could not find housing, employment, or office space in many parts of Davenport. No Black police officers, firefighters or public school teachers were employed by the city. The only positive note was that Mercy Hospital in Davenport employed one Black registered nurse and thereby broke the local color barrier for medical professionals.

This is the cover of a survey booklet “Citizen 2nd Class.” The cover was designed by Tom Chouteau of Davenport.

What about the Catholic churches in Davenport? Only a few Black Catholics lived in the city at that time, and they were often shunned. One Black Catholic told the Messenger that “one priest has made it quite clear that he does not wish to speak to us and Catholics who genuflect at our pew at Mass, see us and move up a couple of pews.”

This is not to say that most Catholics in the Davenport Diocese agreed with such intolerance. Students and faculty at St. Ambrose College established a League for Social Justice to address social issues such as fair housing and racism.

One of the League’s principal activities was creation of a 1951 booklet entitled “Citizen Second Class: Negro Segregation and Discrimination in Davenport.” The report “crystalized” the issue of racism in the city, wrote Father George McDaniel of St. Ambrose University, in a history of the League. “It provided a marker by which to measure progress over succeeding years.”

The Messenger heralded “Citizen Second Class” in a front-page story Nov. 1. The editors underscored the causes of this racism — white ignorance and fear of Black people. These excuses did not set well with the Messenger, which threw down the gauntlet: “It is up to the white people of Davenport whether they will give the city’s 2,500 Negroes the opportunity to live and laugh and love as first class citizens.”

Davenport, however, chose to ignore the challenge. Other communities — Burlington and Ottumwa for example — did work to eliminate discrimination in housing, employment and the use of public facilities. “Our city’s self-respect is in direct proportion to the dignity and respect of the individual citizens,” noted Burlington community leaders.

The Messenger paid particular attention to integration in Burlington over the next several years. In a brief titled “Work Well Done,” the editors praised this achievement and encouraged the community to continue this work. “May others, many others, be induced to follow your example.”

So what was to be done? The Messenger had no easy solution. Legislation alone was not the answer — a change in public attitude was needed. The Messenger called for community leaders — each in their own way — “to work intelligently, consistently, and zealously to erase the injustice of race bias and replace it with the practical expressions of true charity.”

The Messenger kept the issue before its readers. “As Catholics,” the editors wrote in 1957, “we should find sufficient motivation in charity — love of both the Negro and justice — to work tirelessly for the end of racial injustice wherever it is to be found in this country.”
But the editors were realistic. Not all Catholics were willing to accept their neighbors of color. “If charity is weak,” the editors continued, “fear and self-interest can be [an] effective — if less noble — motivation. Fear that ‘we may be next’ on the list of hatemongers should show the peril, if not the hypocrisy, of neutralism in racial matters.”

Catholics might be next? The Messenger was alluding to the persistent presence of anti-Catholicism in American culture. If Catholics accepted discrimination against people of color, it would only encourage bigots to further attack Catholics, Jews and other minorities.

Racism ran deep in Davenport; numerous efforts to call out prejudice and discrimination did not change public policy or behavior. In March 1959, city leaders established a Special Committee on Human Rights to revisit local racial discrimination.

The commission report was dispiriting. No changes had occurred since “Citizen Second Class.” No people of color were employed in city offices such as the police and fire departments. The school district still had no Black teachers. People of color were unable to rent office space or find employment in many factories in Davenport. The reason, the report made clear, was the color of their skin.

The Messenger shared the findings with Iowa Catholics. “It is the shame of Americans whose founding documents proclaim that “all men are created equal,’” wrote the editors, “and it is especially the shame of Christians who believe that all men are brothers under God.”

What could be done as Davenport faced a new decade? At a minimum, the Messenger stressed, the city needed a permanent human rights commission to keep public attention on inter-racial problems: “It is often said that in this epoch of revolution, America can ill afford racial prejudice; but, indeed, there never was a time when we could.”

Change, however, was on the horizon. In the 1960s, the Messenger would highlight a civil rights revolution across the country as well as changes in the church that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. The 1960s would, indeed, be an “epoch of revolution.”

In the 1960s people of color in southeast Iowa in general, as well as those in Davenport specifically, would see the first evidence of equitable treatment in housing, employment and education among other aspects of daily life. It was the beginning of a movement that continues to evolve in the present day.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the Board of Directors of The Catholic Messenger.)

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on