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I Attended a Segregation Academy

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Last week, the Archdiocese of New York announced that twelve Catholic schools in its domain—which includes three New York City boroughs and seven suburban counties to the north—will close at the end of this school year.

That does not surprise me. The Catholic school I attended, in the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, closed in 2004. Three years ago, two dozen schools in the Diocese shut their doors forever. Today, there are roughly half as many Catholic schools and Catholic school pupils as there were in the mid-1960s, when both counts reached their peaks in New York and the United States.

Diocesan leaders and students of such trends cite several factors, which were accelerated by the COVID epidemic and sex abuse revelations. One is cost. When I entered Catholic school, right around the aforementioned peak, a parent, usually the father, could work a few hours’ overtime, or the other parent, usually the mother, could take on part-time work to pay their kids’ tuition. (Notice that I used the plural for children. It was not unusual to find multiple siblings in the same school, or even the same classroom.)  Although Catholic schools still aren’t nearly as pricey as secular private schools, today a working- or middle-class parent’s entire salary could go to the cost of sending one child to a Catholic school.

Another factor blamed for the decline in the number of Catholic schools and their enrollments is the changing demographics of their mostly-urban locations. The closure of my old school is practically a “poster child” of this trend. When I was growing up, my neighborhood was overwhelmingly Catholic with a small, mostly secular, Jewish minority. Today nearly all of the Catholics are gone; now my old neighborhood is part of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in the United States. 

While it is true that nearly every New York City—and urban American—neighborhood has changed its racial and ethnic composition since the 1960s, many people who moved into those neighborhoods are also Catholic. I am thinking in particular, of course, of Hispanics, but in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and East Flatbush, there are large communities of Haitian, Jamaican, and African Catholics. Having come to know some, I can safely say that many are at least as devout—and would want a Catholic education for their children as much– as parents of my community.

Of course, one reason why they don’t enroll their children is the aforementioned cost. While some immigrants are, or become, middle-class professionals, others are working multiple menial jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their kids’ mouths. And it must be said that some who could afford to pay the tuition don’t see the point of doing so when, in contrast to the nuns who taught me and my old schoolmates, most of today’s Catholic school teachers are secular, just like the ones who teach in public school. “How Catholic is their education?” an acquaintance of mine wondered about her grandchildren whose single mother, from what I could tell, could afford the tuition only because of the child support payments and a couple of side jobs that augmented her main salary.

There is, however, a related story that no official in the Archdiocese of New York, or anywhere else in the Church, is mentioning. Most of the Catholic school kids of my generation, while working- or lower middle-class, were White. During the 1960s and ‘70s, many of their families moved. One reason is that they needed larger quarters for their growing families — it wasn’t called the Baby Boom for nothing — and houses outside the cities were more affordable. Or, as in the case of my family, the main breadwinner’s job moved outside the city.

Some of those families continued to enroll their kids in Catholic schools. But most, like my family, sent their kids to the public school in their new locale. As my mother would say, my brothers and I didn’t attend Catholic school because it was Catholic. Rather, she and my father, like other parents in the neighborhood, felt more confident in the education the Catholic school provided. Some of that, I suspect, had to do with the fact that my mother also attended Catholic schools.

But other families moved out of their urban enclaves for the same reason they enrolled their kids in Catholic schools while they were living in those neighborhoods. While some schools date to the beginning of large-scale Catholic immigration—first from Germany and later from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries—others, like the one I attended, didn’t open until the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the school I attended opened only a year before I entered.

That was also the same time Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and other conservative Christian churches were opening private schools, mainly in the South and Midwest. Ostensibly, the founders of these schools feared that “moral values” were being erased from public school curricula—and from the nation’s laws and value systems. They cited the end of prayer and the diversification of reading lists (and other things, one of which I’ll mention) in those public schools.

And what was being “diversified?” Well, for one thing, points of view: history and other classes were being revised to include the stories of people who had been left out.  But, most troubling to the founders of those “Christian” academies was the new variation in color among the student bodies that resulted from Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

A few school boards and elected officials—most notably Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus—openly defied orders to desegregate.  But more people, including church leaders, subverted that order through the IRS tax code, which allowed “religious” schools to claim tax exemption, and through exemptions provided in the civil-rights laws themselves for private institutions. 

Those schools are now commonly called “segregation academies.” While few, if any, openly barred students of color (mainly Black), they adopted policies that had the same effect. One was, of course, tuition that most Black families couldn’t afford. Another was professions of faith that may have run counter to the families’ beliefs. And some simply made nonwhite kids and families feel unwelcome.

Such was the case in my Catholic school.  I can recall no non-White students; nearly all of us came from the same few European backgrounds I’ve mentioned. (This, I believe, is part of what some of my old classmates mean by the “good old days” they pine for on their Facebook pages.) School and church officials would claim that the school’s demographics reflected that of the neighborhood, which was mostly true.  But, when I was growing up, a few of my schoolmates actually told me that their parents sent them to that school because there were “too many (N-words)” in the local public school.  And, as I recall, at least some of their parents were furious that “trouble”—a code word for Black kids—was being bused into the school and neighborhood.

In short, I can’t help but to think something that leaders of the New York Archdiocese, Diocese of Brooklyn and the church can’t or won’t acknowledge: some of their schools, like the one I attended, were essentially Northern segregation academies. The irony is, of course, that in some neighborhoods, the very people those parents, and sometimes school and church officials, tried to keep out are now the neighborhood that can’t or won’t support the Catholic schools that are, or are in danger of, closing. 

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    That’s fascinating about Northern Catholic schools (in some cases) essentially being segregation academies. I too attended a segregation academy – a fundamentalist Christian school founded in 1969 in Tennessee that was actually on a list targeted by the IRS for not having nondiscrimination policies. The school did incorporate the nondiscrimination language in order to keep its tax exemption, and I recall my grandparents being concerned that the school would be subject to government “interference” in the curriculum. You see, I was sent to that school for a few reasons. (1) There was a rumor that students from my town would be bused “down the hill” to a predominantly African-American school (it didn’t happen). (2) I was asking way too many questions regarding Bible stories and evangelical doctrine. (3) The high school I would attend years later supposedly was rife with “drugs and gangs” (a lot of my friends from church attended that school and were fine) and was academically inferior (I don’t know about that). Another interesting thing about the private school I attended was that 2 teachers sued the school for gender pay discrimination. The wife and husband both taught at the school, and she was paid less. They sued and won.

    My father-in-law and 9 of his 10 siblings attended Catholic school in upstare NY during the 50s-70s (they thought one of the kids was dumb and sent him to public school). I have no idea how they could afford that, though I do know my FIL and his siblings all had to work for their dad’s bread distribution business throughout their teen years. My FIL and his siblings all sent their kids to public school.

    A lot of Catholic schools here in NJ and across the border in NY closed. The ones that stayed open nearby are all known as essentially “sports academies”. My son was recruited by one, and we said, no way. My husband is a private math tutor and doesn’t think highly of the math curriculum at the Catholic schools near us. Because most of the Catholic schools nearby are sports academies, they do recruit students from diverse backgrounds, and as there aren’t as many competing Catholic schools around, they still get enough families that can afford full tuition to fund the schools and their scholarship programs.

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    Karuna Gal

    I attended a Northern segregation academy, too, but with a twist. In the late 60s/early 70s my parents pulled me and my siblings out of our public school and sent us to a Catholic school. Their stated reason for doing so, at least in my case, was that they didn’t care for the teacher I would have the following year at the public school. But the real reason was that we soon might be sharing classes with black kids at the public school. The irony was that the teaching order of nuns at the Catholic school were liberal and had black activists come and speak to us at an assembly. That was probably the first time I heard “We Shall Overcome.” We had a couple of black students there and a Jewish kid as well. Loved those nuns! 🙂

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I guess I got fiercely lucky. I grew up in Oakland, California, a very racially integrated city then, and even more so now. I attended Catholic schools from first through twelfth grade. Because my parents lived in an older part of the city, the part that was very well-integrated, I attended two different elementary (1-8) schools that were extremely well-integrated. I changed schools between my 5th and 6th grade years, because of bullying. I suffered from depression, which the school had me tested for, and my diagnosis was rejected by my parents. The nuns decided to encourage my parents to enroll me in a different school a few miles away, equally as well-integrated, but it would break the multi-year bullying cycle.

    High school was an all-girls school in the Oakland Hills, but it was also well-integrated, although there were more same-race cliques than in elementary school. (I’m White, but I hung out with a handful of girls who didn’t socialize well with others. We weren’t shutting people out so much as we were all socially broken.) The Oakland Hills was then a group of mostly-White neighborhoods, but the school had a terrific scholarship program and arranged for very good before-school and after-school transportation with Oakland’s good bus system. Those of us who lived in the lower-income flats had reliable transportation. What made this school very special, and which still seems to be true, is that it is run by a liberal order of nuns who see it as their mission to prepare young women to take up places in the boardroom, the lawyers’ and judge’s seat in the courtroom, the leadership of nonprofits that help people with real issues (hunger, homelessness, etc.). They were social justice warriors before that term was ever coined, except on the issue of a woman’s control of her own reproduction. Even so, I suspect the priests would have been appalled at some of the things we discussed in health class.

    The academics were also excellent, which is why my parents sent me there. I was very, very quiet about the feminism being taught at school, because my mother was locked into this early 20th century notion that daughters existed to make grandchildren, women should be subordinate to men, the whole horrible routine. Oddly enough, my father didn’t accept most of that, and sent me to university to study engineering over her objection. I never did give her those grandchildren, for reasons that had little to do with feminism and lots to do with mental health.

    I graduated high school in 1976, I still get newsletters, they’re still mostly doing the right things, although the tone seems more conservative than I remember. There are still outposts in the Catholic world, but I fear that they’re becoming fewer and fewer.

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Bruce Gerencser