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."