A Sailor in Wartime Dixie: Startled by Catholic Apartheid

And then when we got to Miami, the Gesu Church, which is a beautiful Catholic church, an old church in the heart of Miami, they had big signs posted as you entered, ‘Colored seat from the rear.’

This month holds the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches, which in turn led to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act. The ensuing media spotlight has spurred me to highlight several of my Dad’s recorded encounters with racism, far more dramatic than anything I personally have experienced.

Photo top, an African-American man drinking at a "colored" drinking fountain in a streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939. Russell Lee / United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division

My Dad, like me, named Gerald Regan, was born in 1921, in the Bronx, and died 86 years later. Though born in Bronx Jewish Hospital, he was a third-generation Irish-American, with Famine-era roots in Longford, Cavan and other counties in Ireland.

Dad lived all but two years north of the Mason-Dixon Line and briefly in California, with most of that time in the suburbs of Long Island raising his family and as an empty-nester, surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. They were all, not surprisingly white, most Catholic -- Irish or Italian. So among my Dad's stories, I wanted to hear about his experience with race, with diversity.

He and I spent 16 minutes on the topic, speaking at his home in Garden City, N.Y., in April 2004. The conversation was part of a series of talks with him that I recorded, to better understand his life and times and preserve them.

Most Catholic churches, including Miami’s historic Gesu Church, pictured here, lined up behind segregation in wartime Dixie, and even beyond. The pastor of Gesu from 1934 to 1945 was Iowa native Rev. Florence D. Sullivan, S.J. Photo / Wikipedia Commons

My Dad was not a racist, but he clearly was a product of his times. He had no black friends, but he did have two Jewish colleagues from the beer business, Marvin Kimmel and Jerry Steinman, who became dear friends.

I remember too our visiting Harry Paul, another of my Dad’s Jewish friends from the beer business in the early 1960s, when I was about eight years old. Dad and I schlepped what felt like to me then a solid mile across the beach for the visit, to Silver Point Beach Club, known then as the club Jews joined, while Christians, mostly Catholics, joined the adjacent Sun & Surf Beach Club, on Long Island’s Atlantic Beach. I can tell you that in my family’s eight years of membership in Sun & Surf, I never saw a black individual in either club as a member, as well, though this was certainly not my Dad's responsibility.

No, it was my Dad’s earlier experience with segregation, during World War 2, when he was posted in in the South, that he found noteworthy.

It was a shock to me coming from New York,” he said, “where, although we weren't completely liberated, the blacks or colored, as they would call them, had a pretty good rein of freedom compared to what they had down South.”

During 1943, my Dad was a physical education instructor at the Navy’s Subchaser Training Center in the port of Miami, working with fellow Navy personnel, across all economic strata and all races and ethnicity.

Photo of my Dad and Mom in Miami, 1943.

“In dealing with the troops, I trained a group of colored boys from South Carolina and the only rank they could attain was mess cook,” he said.

“I had about 120 of them (in his training sessions), some of them the first time they had shoes. They were right off the farm in Georgia, and it was a tough time to get them to be coordinated and trained and follow orders. They weren't disobedient. They just didn't know; they didn't realize. It was a whole different world to them and also for us.”

Most jarring to me as a faithful Catholic were my Dad’s observations about the Catholic churches he encountered when living in the South.

After sea duty, transporting soldiers to North Africa, in December 1942 and January 1943, he was stationed at the US Naval Training Center Bainbridge, in Maryland. He recalled: “As soon as we got to Maryland, I went to a Catholic church there for Sunday Mass and they had big signs (indicating) colored seating up in the balcony. And after the white folks received communion, then, at a signal, the colored were allowed to come down and file down and receive communion separately from the white people. “

The shabby treatment was on display also in his next posting.

He recalled: “And then when we got to Miami, the Gesu Church, which is a beautiful Catholic church, an old church in the heart of Miami, they had big signs posted as you entered the church, ‘Colored Seat from the Rear.’ And then they'd have water fountains there, and one would be for colored and one would be for white.

“And when they received Communion there, too, the colored could not receive from the altar until all the whites had received communion and sat down.”

And my Dad’s experience was apparently readily available to anyone attending Mass down South, where local white supporters of civil rights were rare. The Society of Saint Edmund, a Catholic religious order, were the only whites in Selma who openly supported the voting rights campaign, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. In fact, Bronx native Don Jelinek, a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after the Selma Marches, described the Edmundites as “the unsung heroes of the Selma March … who provided the only integrated Catholic church in Selma, and perhaps in the entire Deep South.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with members of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Selma in 1965. The sisters joined the Edmundite Southern Missions in Selma in 1940. Encyclopedia of Alabama Photo by Alston Fitss III

Before my Dad’s passing in June 2007, he journeyed through life focused largely on his work and family, as did most individuals, I suppose, whether they were black, white or Asian, living in Harlem, Selma or Timbuktu.

My Dad, as his words professed, treated people as they came. But details of his life in suburbia, and as an executive in the brewing industry, suggest he was not an activist. In his interview, he acknowledges his discomfort with the blatant racism he saw in the South, but he soon came to accept it as the way it was. He also made no effort to be politically correct. In listening again to his remarks, I'm struck at how they captured the mindset of so many of 'the greatest generation.'

“Blacks wouldn’t sit in the front of the bus,” he recalled, speaking of his time in Miami. ”They knew they weren’t -- they would be asked to leave or get into the back. … Those were isolated incidents. But, by and large, I didn’t see any flare up. Everyone seemed to know their place, but that was generations of knowing your place. Not something new.”

"It was tough on boys from New York or Detroit or Chicago, black boys, who used to have more freedom, to be told to sit in the back of the bus or not to go into a white toilet, like they probably did in the city."

Comment by Richard Strathern on March 15, 2015 at 1:28pm

Gerry Regan, your article reminded me of two painful experiences that I had in 1948 and again in 1965. As a young Polio victim, age 10, in 1948 from Euclid, Ohio, I was sent to Warm Spring Georgia, for surgery. My father, William Charles Strathern, born in Derry, Ireland and I travelled through Georgia, to Warm Springs. Remember this is the site of FDR's the "Little White House." As we travelled by Greyhound Bus from Atlanta we witnessed first hand segregation. We were both shocked by what we saw. I remember two Black Orderlies who work at the hospital and whom I befriended were scared to go home one night because they would have to pass through an area where the KKK was having a evening meeting and they had to sleep in the stairwell that night rather then risk going home.

In 1965, as a than Marianist Teaching Brother, I was assigned to coordinate a health and education summer program for migrant farm families, both Black and Latino on John's Island, S.C. We had a week long orientation prior to the program start up. Several Charleston Clergy were to entertain me with evening dinners while we waited for the start of the program. I was unaware at the time that Bishop Ernst Unterkoefer had warned the Clergy not to have any discussions with the Yankee religious from Cleveland, about racial issues. One night sitting around the dinner table I listen to a spirited discussion about Dolphins and what level of intelligence they possessed. It toke me a few minutes to see that they had substituted dolphins for blacks. Obeying the letter of the Bishop's warning. This to say the least was not a very happy experience for me about to start the summer program. Msgr. Bernardin, a young priest at the time and who later became Cardinal Bernardin, who I shared the story with was able to save the day and talk me out of catching the next bus out of town. The program turnout to be a success in spite of this and other similar experience during program. I did get to work the poorest of the poor on John's Island and was never the same after returning to Cleveland. Bishop Unterkoefer called me in prior to returning to Cleveland and asked me directly what I though of the Church in the South. Before I could reply he started to laugh so I assumed Msgr. Bernardin must have told him of my experience. I think I said something like - you have a lot of problems to work on. The program was sponsored by both the Baptist and Catholic Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Six Catholic Nuns, and equal number of college students participated. We slept in tents and trailers. Half way through the program we had to move the Nuns back into Charlestown because of gun fire nearby from the road and the remaining group moved in near one of the migrant camps near a graveyard for protection. Here we are 50 years later wondering what happen to those that made up the program evaluating where we are today as compared to that time. Years later often thinking about this happening we were lucky to get out of there alive.

Comment by dennis harris on March 15, 2015 at 9:18pm

The events shared in the preceding posts are a result of the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War. During that time, whites were refused the opportunity to vote, had to house Yankee soldiers in their homes and feed them, were forced to give up their land to blacks, white women were raped by Yankees, whites could only own land or vote after making an oath of allegiance to the Federal Gov. When the Yankees soldiers left with their bayonets after a decade and a half, the blacks were left with no supporters or protectors. The whites then saw the blacks as the reason for the oppression by the Yankees and took revenge against the blacks who remained in the South.

I have lived in the North and the South. The North has been and is more segregated by race than any area I have seen in the South.

Comment by Richard Strathern on March 16, 2015 at 1:07am

Yes Dennis, I agree racism is still a big problem in our society. I do not ever remember seeing separate washroom, drinking fountains, separating seating on buses or at Churches in the north. I assume the segregation you are referring to is based on economics and its effects on affordable housing. We do have a long way to go before that problem is resolved. We have made some progress but not enough again due to the deep seated racism issue. Slavery was immoral and unchristian and is discrimination in whatever form. Don't you agree.

Comment by Gerry Regan on March 21, 2015 at 11:00pm

Richard, thank you for sharing your experience with racism in America. Interesting for me, my sweetheart, Mary, and I recently visited FDR's home in Hyde Park, and I read there how FDR worked relentlessly before he became president to gain at least the appearance of more mobility. He also remained committed to the Warm Spring's facility's commitment to create a better life for those afflicted with polio who came through its doors. How did you make out there? Sounds like you achieved full mobility. Did you remain in religious life? So many from that era left, I gather.

Comment by Richard Strathern on March 22, 2015 at 1:41am

Hi Gerry,

I never did regain use of my left leg. Initially in August of 46 I had little use of both legs but after 11 months at Cleveland City Hospital I regain complete use of my left leg. The surgery was on my left hip and knee to reduce contraction of my muscles, and stabilize my left foot. Through most of my youth and early career wore a long leg brace with a lift. The rest of my careers on crutches.

I joined the Marianist afrer graduating fro High School in 1957 and left the order in1973. Work as a consultant in Management Control System and then became a Plant Manager in Photofinishing for three years, I moved into Divisional Director Human Resource Manager for Y & O Coal Company after five years became Plant Manager for TRW/Precision Castparts for eight years and finally out to Precision Castparts Portland Oregon Division a Director of Human Resources from 1994 to 2005 when I retired. Became active in politics and was elected to a four year term on City Council in Gresham Oregon. Still very active in local community activities. Polio and a lot of good people made me who I am today enjoying life to the fullest with my wife Patty, daughter Deana and three grand children. Sill a big Thomas Merton fan.

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Tags: 2, Family History, Military, Navy, Racism, Segregation, War, World War


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Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 4, 2017 at 9:43am

Ger .. I have read this article with interest , although it was written in 2015.. it is as relevant today as it was all those years ago....

The  blatant racism in the UK in 1950/60 /70 , is on a similar vein to what Black people have endured and are still enduing today.. However ... My Dad and brother had to emigrate to the UK to find work in the UK ... in that era 19/60 etc... What they endured in this Racist Country .. was No Irish ... No Blacks... No dogs ... Boarding house had ;; No Irish wanted  here ... Go Home paddy...

It was the Irish who built the infrastructure/ manned the Hospital/ buses etc... 

Before that it was the Jewish people... when oh when are we ever going to learn to live in peace and harmony with one another ......

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 4, 2017 at 3:57pm

But, Mary, I do see among this new generation around the U.S. as I've traveled much more integration of social circles, interracial relationships. I take some comfort from seeing that.

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