Without Hysteria or Unnecessary Disturbance: Spring Hill College’s Quiet History of Desegregation

Spring Hill College is Alabama’s oldest institution of higher learning. It was founded in 1830, by Michael Portier, the first Catholic Bishop of Mobile. It was also the first college in the state to desegregate, a move so noteworthy that it earned praise from Dr. Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

The desegregation of Spring Hill came just before the increased Ku Klux Klan (KKK) activity and the White Citizens Council, which led to the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. African American students were admitted in 1947 to evening classes. Fathers Patrick Donnelly, S.J., and Andrew Smith, S.J., brought landmark changes to the College after World War II. Both men viewed racial segregation as an “ethical and moral dilemma” and encouraged the College’s board towards desegregation. 

The College quietly desegregated in September 1954, as eight African Americans joined the student population of 780 at the liberal arts college. The ninth, Mrs. Fannie Motley, joined in the spring semester. Fr. Smith., then Spring Hill’s president, enacted a policy of no publicity in order to ensure a smooth transition of new students coming on campus — “without hysteria or unnecessary disturbance,” he said. Even the campus newspaper was forbidden to report on the new African American students on campus in order to protect the identity of the students and to protect them from violence by the KKK and the White Citizens Council.

In 1956, Mrs. Motley became the first African American graduate of the College. She was one of only two Mobile area students to graduate with honors that year, quietly making history as the first African American to graduate from a four-year college in the State of Alabama.

Although Spring Hill’s decision coincided with the Brown vs. Board of Education verdict, it was not driven by it. The decision was rooted in a consistent ethical vision articulated by Fathers Donnelly, Smith and others as nothing more than a gradual but inevitable unfolding of the College’s mission.

The progressive reputation of the Catholic Church in race relations at mid-century rested on the efforts of a few remarkable individuals working in isolation. Jesuits like Fr. Albert S. Foley, S.J., were interested in progressive social issues even though they were likely to face censure from their religious superiors. Foley went on to mold student and faculty attitudes with regard to race relations more than anyone else at Spring Hill. He encouraged students to attend White Citizens Council meetings and report on them, and drive to Klan meetings and record the license numbers of cars in attendance for class credit.

Motley’s graduation marked the beginning of a new era in Alabama history, but events in the following months reminded Spring Hill that its successful step forward did not meet with approval from the prevailing mentality of the white South.

In January of 1957, a dozen or so darkened cars eased down the Avenue of the Oaks, and several dozen KKK members attempted to set up a kerosene-soaked cross outside the Mobile Hall dormitory. Students who had been studying late into the night for finals were alerted, streamed from the building, and chased them off the campus. 

Spring Hill’s integration efforts earned the respect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who mentioned the moral significance of Spring Hill’s initiatives in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Written on April 16, 1963, Dr. King’s letter was not an essay but an indictment against the white southern church, in which he expressed his disappointment in the leadership. However, in the letter, King cited Spring Hill College for its leadership in the civil rights movement. In paragraph 33 he stated, “I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.”

ABOUT SPRING HILL COLLEGE:

Founded in 1830, Spring Hill College is the oldest Catholic College in the Southeast and the third-oldest Jesuit college in the United States. Spring Hill combines the Jesuit tradition of excellence in education and a commitment to caring for the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – with innovative educational experiences. Located in Mobile, Ala., Spring Hill’s mission is to form leaders engaged in learning, faith, justice, and service for life. As a result, Spring Hill students are engaged, inspired, and transformed by their experiences. For more information, visit www.shc.edu. 

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