Houston Catholic schools among the first to desegregate in 1961

February 27, 2024

Children perform together in a Nativity scene at Holy Name Catholic School after the Galveston-Houston Diocese integrated its schools in 1961. Bishop Wendelin J. Nold, then head of the diocese, announced that local parochial schools in all grades would be desegregated starting in September 1961 with “all qualified Catholic children, regardless of color, will be eligible for admission.” (Archdiocesan Archive photo)

HOUSTON — Integrating schools and other public entities among the races only happened within this living generation, officials point out.

As part of Black History Month, a review of news archives in both the Galveston Daily News and the now-defunct Houston Post shows desegregation of all Catholic schools in Harris and Galveston counties was announced from the pulpits during regular Sunday Masses of all churches involved.

In April 1961, each priest read aloud a pastoral letter from Bishop Wendelin Joseph Nold, bishop at the time of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, announcing that local parochial schools in all grades would be desegregated starting that pending September.

“…All qualified Catholic children, regardless of color, will be eligible for admission into the parochial schools existing in the territory embraced by Harris and Galveston counties,” Bishop Nold’s letter stated.

The letter also pointed out that desegregation had started in the Houston public schools in September 1960 but was only doing so on a grade-a-year basis rather than all grades at once as the parochial schools would do. Galveston public schools were ordered to begin desegregation at the same time in September 1961.

The local Catholic school enrollment then was 28,772 students enrolled in 74 parochial elementary schools, according to the 1961 National Catholic Almanac. The Catholic population at that time was 412,000, the almanac stated.

The archived newspaper articles also listed “16 Negro mission churches serving 38,734 Negro members.” At the time, the Galveston-Houston Diocese had “one of the largest Negro memberships of any Catholic diocese in the United States,” exceeded only in New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., according to the almanac.

Among the local missions, there were “eight Negro schools…with a total enrollment of 2,772,” the almanac reported.

Father Reginald Samuels, the present-day vicar for Catholics of African Descent who serves the African, African American, and Caribbean Catholic communities of the Archdiocese, said, “My older brothers and sisters lived in the era of desegregation, and they all described how challenging the process was for them.”

He added, “Looking back on this era, I can see how exacting the process was; however, the Catholic bishops had the foresight to know that change was inevitable, and progress would be uncomfortable.”

Now the “Negro mission Churches” have evolved to include all the various communities of African Descent in the Archdiocese, including Catholics from the African Continent, Caribbean and South America,” said Father Samuels, who is also pastor at St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park.

Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Superintendent Debra Haney said, “We firmly believe that multiculturalism adds to the beauty and richness of our schools in immeasurable ways.”

The current racial breakdown of the area’s Catholic student body of about 18,000 is 37% Hispanic, 32% white, 13% of students who are two or more races, 9% Asian, 6% Black/African American, and remaining unidentified, Haney said.

“We have seen the diversity of our schools increase over the last several years. Our goal is for the students and the faculty within a school to represent the community which the school serves,” Haney said.

Father Samuels concluded, “Catholic school population for African and African Americans continues to be small and challenging. However, the numbers increase year by year.”