Catholic Responses to School Integration

The desegregation of schools in New Orleans in the 1960s resulted in protests, school closures, and the near-abandonment of the public school system. While New Orleans public schools began desegregation in November of 1960, it took nearly two more years for Catholic schools to integrate despite Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel's long-standing belief in the immorality of segregation.

In 1953, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel of the Archdiocese of New Orleans called for an end to segregation within the New Orleans Archdiocese with his Pastoral Letter "Blessed Are the Peacemakers." A year later, the case "Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas" ruled segregation unconstitutional, and local school districts were ordered to desegregate "with all deliberate speed." In 1957, Archbishop Rummel announced an end to segregation in Catholic Schools beginning one grade at a time.


White supremacist and segregationist groups formed across the country to protest racial integration including the White Citizen's Council of Greater New Orleans and the Association of Catholic Laymen, founded by Orleans Parish School Board member Emile A. Wagner Jr. in 1957 to directly protest Catholic school integration. 

Archbishop Rummel threatened the Association of Catholic Laymen with ex-communication. The Association asked Pope Pius XII to stop Rummel from integrating the churches and the schools; the group was rebuffed that the Pope had condemned racism as a major evil, asserting “that those who enter the Church ... have rights as children in the House of the Lord."

Drown_B2_F1_Statement_Of_Catholic_Laymen_To_The_People 030.jpg

"Statement by Catholic Laymen to the People of Louisiana," Drown Collection, Box 2, Folder 1


Save Our Schools 

Meanwhile, Save Our Schools, Inc., aka S.O.S., formed to advocate for keeping the schools open. While not taking a position on desegregation, S.O.S. highlighted concerns that the closing of the public schools would lead to juvenile delinquency, loss of accreditation, loss of Federal tax funds, higher taxes, loss of health services for public school children, and economic stagnation.

  • Pupil Placement Law, Drown collection, Box 1, Folder 6

The Move Towards Integration 

In 1959, the Archdiocese announced that Catholic schools would be integrated "at the earliest possible opportunity, and definitely not later than when the public schools are integrated." But the 84-year-old Archbishop Rummel was experiencing failing health and in June 1960, there was still no definite plan for Catholic school integration. 

The Orleans Parish Public Schools were officially desegregated on November 14, 1960 beginning with kindergarten and first grade. Four Black female students who had met 17 difficult provisions from Louisiana's recently adopted pupil-placement act were allowed to attend 2 formerly white schools. Protests were staged by "cheerleaders" (white mothers) who blocked the children's paths, spat and shouted racial slurs at them. Continued rallies and race riots resulted in white parents removing their children from school. By the end of the month, fewer than 10 white children attended the two desegregated schools.

From 1961-1962, integration continued with less interruption. Now a solid year behind the integrated public schools, the Archdiocese created the Catholic Council on Human Relations on May 5, 1961, to push the church towards integration. Pro-segregation groups staged protests, but the plan moved forward.

In September 1962, Catholic schools of Orleans Parish integrated. 104 Black students were admitted to the 75,000-student system. Our Lady of Good Harbor School in Buras opened at a fraction of its normal enrollment while angry crowds gathered and a sound truck played "Dixie." Threats of violence and an eventual bombing closed the school in 1963. A Black mother's car window was smashed as she went to pick up her child from Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Westwego. Most Catholic schools held their enrollments, however, until white flight to the suburbs occurred in later years.


Rosemary Drown

Rosemary Drown was an employee of the New Orleans Catholic Bookshop for over 40 years. In 1962 the Catholic Council on Human Relations of the Archdiocese of New Orleans wrote a letter to Ms. Drown regarding her contribution "to the worthy cause of helping a Catholic Negro family keep their child in a Catholic school." 

The Drown Collection was donated by Janet Mary Riley, women’s rights advocate and the first female law professor in New Orleans, who had this to say about Ms. Drown: “Collected by late Rosemary Drown, employee of Catholic Bookstore, integrationist, friend of Ms. Riley.”

Catholic Responses to School Integration