When Indiana native Joseph Ritter arrived in St. Louis in October 1946 as archbishop, he wasted little time in making a controversial decision.
“He was a progressive Catholic and one of the first things he did when he came here, he decided that the parochial schools would be desegregated,” said Missouri History Museum curator Gwen Moore.
Ritter’s edict came in 1947, the turbulent year that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, and seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education. Ritter instructed his pastors to accept all children into their parish schools regardless of race.
“By law blacks and whites could not go to school together, so this was an earth-shaking decision,” said Moore.
The backlash from white Catholics was immediate. Hundreds threatened to sue Archbishop Ritter. A flyer announcing a protest meeting is one of the museum exhibit artifacts on display for “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis."
“He wrote a letter,” said Moore, “quite a remarkable letter that he had read to all of the Catholic Church.”
Threatening excommunication from the Catholic Church, Ritter wrote: “It has come to our attention that a small group of individuals have signified their purpose of taking civil action to restrain us from carrying out a policy which we consider our right and duty as chief pastor of the faithful of this Archdiocese, regardless of race or nationality.
“By the general law of the Church, there is the serious penalty of excommunication, which can be removed only by the Holy See.”
The opposition quickly was silenced.
“That movement was squashed,” said Moore. “That put an end to that movement right then and there.“
The museum exhibit features a telegram from the NCAAP praising Ritter’s actions. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a letter congratulating him for his “courage and wisdom”.
“He challenged it and he stood by his decision despite opposition and to me that’s leadership,” said Moore. “Do the right thing and you stand behind your decision. So I think Cardinal Ritter is someone that needs to be recognized for his contributions to the city of St. Louis and really to the Catholic Church."
“I like this story because it shows what one man can do.”