Molly Pyle, Special to the Catholic Virginian
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles offering readers glimpses into the diocese’s history via entertaining and enlightening vignettes focusing on important, though little-known, events.
In August 2017, a group of Catholics, black and white, gathered after Mass one Sunday at Sacred Heart Church, Danville, to share their remembrances of the civil rights era in that community.
Readers may know of the student-led demonstrations in the early 1960s that eventually brought national attention to Danville’s resistance to desegregation, beginning a slow process of social change. Few may be aware of the various ways — sometimes public, most of the time undisclosed — that Danville’s integrated Catholic community supported the drive for integration.
Those who convened in 2017 embodied the Catholic community’s diversity and the bonds of personal histories and faith that have united them. Jeff Haley, a descendant of one of the founding families, was the only one of the group raised in Sacred Heart Parish.
At various points during their young adult years, Hazel C. Moore, Esther Goins, and Kirby Wright joined the Catholic Church; Phyllis Camm and Vince Kania Sr., both raised Catholic, joined Sacred Heart upon moving to the area.
Notably, in the conversions of Hazel and, indirectly, Kirby, the Sisters of Christ the King were inspirations. Kirby’s father, “Daddy Wright,” known to many in Danville because of his limousine service, had earlier converted to Catholicism, inspired by the sisters. He later became Hazel’s godfather.
Raising and educating children, pursuing careers, socializing in the city’s theaters and restaurants, getting around on public transportation, Catholics — white and black — experienced, in varying degrees, treatment as second-class citizens.
Recalling the early 1960s, with its increasing number and size of civil rights demonstrations, on the one hand, and entrenched resistance on the other, the group spoke of difficult choices they confronted.
Blacks and Catholics supported one another in their efforts to oppose racism. Moore recalled a newly arrived young woman, a candidate to join the sisters, who, on being offered a job at the public library, was told, “If we catch you with those coloreds, we’ll fire you.”
Goins, then a teacher at Langston High School for blacks and faculty advisor to the student council, remembered that Langston’s faculty supported their students during the demonstrations. They risked losing their jobs, but they did so out of love. As teachers, they played a special role, nurturing their students’ potential, attending particularly to disadvantaged ones:
“Teachers were close to the students; we were a family. We had an outstanding student, Claudius, who, in honor of his achievements, was invited to the White House for a reception with President [John F.] Kennedy,” Goins said. “Claudius was from an economically deprived family. The teachers pooled our resources and bought Claudius a suitcase full of new clothes, with some spending money. He went off in style!”
Moore, who sent her children to Sacred Heart School, recalled how in the early 1960s, black parents, four Sisters of Mercy and the priest who ran the parochial school maintained, in secret, the school’s inclusion of black students.
They quietly defied Danville’s staunch opposition to integration — the city’s public schools were not integrated until 1969-1970. The black mothers would drop off their children and pick them up by the carriage house behind the school, concealed from public view.
When the mainstream newspaper, the Danville Bee, heard about black students at the Catholic school, reporters tried to pressure the sisters and priest into reversing their policy.
In the 1960s, Father Carl J. Naro was new to Danville, having moved from Pennsylvania at the height of the demonstrations. Asked by reporters about black students, he replied, “We have Catholic school students,” and walked away.
Camm, who was his secretary during those years, added that she and her husband, who worked at the Bee, were also questioned repeatedly about the identities of black students.
To help create change, black students struggled to find a voice denied them by the mainstream Danville media. Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Thurman Echols had been captivated by the promise of civil rights. In the 1960s, he was elected president of student council at Langston High School, as a sophomore.
“On June 6, 1963, I turned 16, and on June 10, I was arrested (for peaceful protest),” he recalled.
Among his influences were the role models at his Calvary Baptist Church — many well-educated professionals. At school, Goins exerted a powerful influence.
“She was very smart, and she encouraged me to run for student council president; she saw some potential in me,” Echols said.
In 1960, the Greensboro, NC, sit-in inspired Danville’s black community to emulate that model. Greensboro is 50 miles south of Danville. However, Thurman recalled, officials remained impassive despite ongoing demonstrations.
Danville’s story is a reminder that in many cities only some outrage was sufficient to draw national attention and precipitate change. In the 1960s, the Society of Christ Our King sisters, led by Mother Teresa, organized to support the effort. The sisters typed articles about the Danville protests and sent them to wire services; they offered the hospitality of the convent to out-of- town demonstrators; and even, briefly, joined the demonstrations.
Their activism was extraordinary — and prophetic, a fruit, in part, of the new theology of the Second Vatican Council. However, in 1963, Bishop John J. Russell asked them to desist and support civil rights through activities confined to their convent.
The student-led demonstrations were successful, at considerable cost, when on June 10, 1963, police used force to break up peaceful protesters. That morning, about 75 people, mostly students, with a few adults (teachers included), demonstrated in front of city hall. Several were arrested, Echols among them.
That evening, demonstrators returned to city hall, protesting the earlier arrests, and the police responded with force. They used fire hoses and riot sticks. Some 30 people were arrested that night and over 40 people treated for wounds at Winslow Hospital (for blacks) in Danville. The events were covered in the national media, and afterward, steps were taken toward integration.
During those violent days, Father Naro acted, through the ministerial association — which had, until that point, excluded Catholics — to invite fellow Christians to an intensive dialogue, with the aim of allaying fears and encouraging mutual acceptance.
Through Father Naro’s leadership, Camm, a participant, recalled Danville’s Catholics and Episcopalians formed a human relations council and engaged in an intensive, two-week retreat at the Episcopal church. About 30 or 40 individuals, mostly women, learned to accept change by accepting one another.
Recollections of personal encounters shed light on that inner change. To illustrate, Camm recalled an experience that opened her eyes to the reality of racism. It occurred during a long car ride with her black friend, Helen Harvey. She and Harvey were escorting the four Mercy Sisters, teachers of Harvey’s children at the school, to the sisters’ motherhouse in Philadelphia:
“I suggested to Helen, who was driving, that we look for a gas station with a restroom. She kept driving. We were about 30 miles from Washington, when she, reluctantly, pulled into a northern Virginia gas station,” Camm said. “But she wouldn’t get out of the car. I couldn’t understand. She said, ‘I’m not allowed in the bathrooms.’ I was stunned and mortified. The station manager agreed to allow Helen to use the facilities. But it was shameful.”
If we’re to realize the social Gospel’s vision — harnessing the power of love — churches and schools must do more to foster interracial relationships. As Echols pointed out, “Change has to come from the heart and mind. The law cannot make me love you.”