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Look Back:  Catholic school integration

One of the scenes outside the St. Louis Cathedral, 4431 Lindell Boulevard, on Oct. 8, 1946, the day of Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter's installation. Among those kneeling in prayer on the front steps are three young black women. When Ritter was installed, blacks could attend only a few of the area Catholic schools. Ritter would change that the following summer, and mince no words when opposition erupted among white parents. (Arthur Witman/Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS • On Sept. 5, 1947, St. Louis Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter quietly instructed Catholic schools to admit black children. Protests erupted as classes began in September.

About 500 angry white parents gathered in Capstick Hall, 5815 Easton Avenue (now Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard), on Sept. 9 to oppose Ritter's decision. Said meeting co-chairman William T. Rone, "We do not want Negro children alongside our children in the schools."

Ritter refused to meet their leaders. His spokesman said, "He is the father of the whole flock and must care for all, regardless of race."

In a follow-up meeting, 700 parents resolved to take Ritter to court. They scheduled a bigger rally for the evening of Sunday, Sept. 21.

That morning, John P. Barrett, a painting contractor and chairman of the new Catholic Parents Association, attended Mass at St. Edward's Church, Clara and Maffitt avenues. The priest read a letter from Ritter to all parishes, warning that participants in any such suit will face "the serious penalty of excommunication." It would bar them from church practice.

The meeting that night drew 700 to the St. Louis House, 2345 Lafayette Avenue, but Ritter's letter threw it into turmoil. "I don't want to do anything that would jeopardize my religion," said Barrett, who already had pulled his children from St. Edward's School.

St. Louis University integrated in 1944, but area Catholic high schools and grade schools remained segregated — as were the public schools.

St. Louis' black population had almost doubled since 1930, and many black families wanted out of the crowded slums near downtown. Most were Protestants, but black Catholics had been part of St. Louis since colonial days. In 1946, when Ritter was appointed archbishop, their children went to a few inner-city parochial grade schools and St. Joseph's High School, 4132 Page Avenue.

The Catholic Parents Association offered $25 as a "gesture of friendliness" to St. Malachy's, a black parish west of Union Station. The pastor wouldn't take it.

Organized opposition collapsed two weeks later at another emotional meeting, where Barrett was booed while obtaining a vote to disband. That year, black children enrolled in previously all-white Catholic schools, including St. Edward's.

St. Joseph's High closed in 1951. Public schools were integrated three years later, after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. Barrett was a Missouri state senator from 1954 to 1965 and died in 2000.

Ritter died in 1967. A decade later, the archdiocese created Cardinal Ritter College Prep on the North Side, and moved it to a new campus in midtown in 2003.