Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.
John Gabriel Smith was feeling the early stirrings of a priestly vocation in 1949 when he was an eighth-grade altar boy at the all-black church of St. Peter Claver in rural Ridge, Md. Guiding and encouraging him was his pastor, the Rev. Horace McKenna, a white Jesuit priest who had been serving the segregated and neglected African American community in Southern Maryland for nearly two decades. For the young man who had spent hours reading about the lives of the saints, McKenna was the closest he had ever come to knowing a living one.
"He told me I would have to know Latin to enter the seminary," Smith recalls, "and that Gonzaga College High School was the best place for me to learn it."
What McKenna neglected to tell his young charge, who had never heard of the Jesuit school for boys situated in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, was that it was just about to open its doors to blacks for the first time. Gabe Smith would be one of only a few in a school with over 500 students. In time, he would become its first black graduate.
"Gonzaga was great," he recalls today. "I had no problem with any of the students."
It was a historic achievement, pulled off by a determined prelate who broke the racial divide in Washington -- and perhaps influenced the future of desegregation in the United States.
Five years before the Supreme Court's 1954 decision to end segregation in the nation's public schools, Archbishop Patrick A. O'Boyle quietly ordered the integration of all Catholic schools and churches in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Arriving from New York to lead the newly formed archdiocese in 1948, he was dismayed to see firsthand the systematic exclusion of blacks from schools that professed Christianity. "I just don't see any reason why a little black boy or girl doesn't have the same right to a Catholic education as a little white boy or girl," he told a friend at the time. And almost immediately, he set about dismantling the system of separation he believed to be morally evil. But he made sure there was no publicity about it.
In other areas of his leadership, the archbishop hardly kept a low profile. Newspaper accounts of the time report a flurry of activity -- from groundbreaking ceremonies for new schools and churches in the rapidly expanding archdiocese to outspoken attacks on the evils of communism and pleas on behalf of the poor. Not a word was written, however, on what was perhaps O'Boyle's greatest legacy.
The archbishop had asked the local papers not to report on his efforts to desegregate the churches and schools, and they complied. The Rev. John Spence, director of education in the archdiocese at the time, explained several years later at a clerical conference that this was part of O'Boyle's plan to make the sweeping changes gradually and without fanfare so as not to allow resistance to develop.
"One or two efforts by brother bishops in other dioceses of the United States through edicts had stirred up more opposition than cooperation," Spence said, "and certainly had not been successful in begetting the results intended."
Behind the scenes, though, O'Boyle was busy. He met regularly with church councils, teachers and administrators, asking for their cooperation in the great enterprise. He knew that everyone would have to be on board -- including the private Catholic schools not under direct control of the archdiocese -- if his plan was to work.
With a combination of gruff Irish wit and the authority of his position, O'Boyle convinced them of the righteousness of what they were doing. Most of all, he used his interpretation of Scripture to make the point.
"Either personally or vicariously, he reminded them of the equal creation of all men by God," Spence recounted, "their endowment with equal rights as children of God; their equal salvation through the Redemption of Jesus Christ, and their common obligation of affording justice and charity to all men regardless of their race, color or nationality."
Teresa Posey, a retired African American educator, recalls the archbishop's frequent consultations with her on issues of race. "He would always question, ask for information," she says, "but you never knew how the information was being used because he never reacted. When he made up his mind, though, that was it. . . . The schools of the archdiocese are desegregated. Period."
The archbishop began the process of desegregation in the District and the surrounding Maryland counties. He knew that trying to effect change in the Southern Maryland portion of the archdiocese, with its deeply entrenched history of animosity toward blacks, would be extremely difficult and initially held off there.
His plan worked. Despite isolated instances of resistance, no organized opposition emerged. Local schools opened to blacks without serious incident.
Bishops from other dioceses across the country who had been observing O'Boyle's efforts saw how successful they were and soon followed. Chief Justice Earl Warren of the Supreme Court was watching, too, sometimes consulting informally with the archbishop on the progress of desegregation in Washington.
For Smith, now a pharmacist living in Fort Washington, the first days at Gonzaga were blessedly ordinary. He had arrived at the high school with no idea of what it was like. He simply trusted McKenna, his gentle mentor.
"When you have a saint working for you, you follow," he says now. "He knows what the job is and he knows how to get it done."
Moving in with his sister just three blocks away, Smith was quickly assimilated into his new school, made friends and, though he never entered the seminary, settled down like everyone else for a classic Jesuit education.
"Everything went off just like another student coming to school," he recalls. But if the color of his skin made little difference in the way he was received at Gonzaga, it was a still a major factor in the way he was treated outside of school. The reactions of his new friends to that treatment remains one of Smith's most vivid impressions from that period.
One night, when he and his white friends pulled up to a drive-in restaurant in Northern Virginia, a waiter spotted Smith in the car and refused to serve him. "I'll never forget how those guys stood by me," he says. "Pat Felker told them just where they could stick their food."
"I learned a lot from him," Smith says of his friend Felker, now deceased. "I thought, `This is the way I want to be. I don't want to go through life as an agree-er.' "
John Carmody, a classmate of Smith's, remembers playing with him on Gonzaga's junior varsity football team and facing the National Training School on a bitterly cold Thanksgiving Day.
"These guys were notorious as the worst juvenile delinquents," Carmody says, "and they went after Gabe like a pack of piranhas. He was getting the hell kicked out of him, but he wouldn't let it get to him."
"It was a little rough," Smith agrees, "but I thought it was going to be a lot rougher. I was looking out for knives."
Gonzaga's stance on segregation was tested the following year when the issue went to the heart of its athletic program. As Smith contemplated going out for the varsity football team, the public schools in the region, getting wind of this, announced they would not play Gonzaga if he was on the team.
Gonzaga's athletic director, Joe Kozik, had no idea whether Smith would qualify for the squad. He certainly wasn't the strongest of athletes, but Kozik decided Smith deserved a chance like everyone else. Since the schedule for the next season's games had to be finalized before tryouts were held, Kozik told the public schools that he wouldn't be scheduling them, and Gonzaga spent a good part of the next season playing its games out of town.
"It became a choice of whether to cut him out, or stand up to segregation," Carmody says. "We were being forced to take a moral stand, and it made the whole school rally around Gabe."
In the end, an injury prevented him from even trying out.
While Smith was thriving at Gonzaga, O'Boyle's greatest desegregation challenge still lay ahead -- in Southern Maryland. He got an inkling of the depth of resistance to integration when McKenna, Smith's guardian angel, held a Mass for both white and black children when he was short of priests one day. The reaction was explosive. The enraged community demanded a meeting, over which McKenna presided several days later.
"That night, I witnessed a crucifixion," one attendee later recounted in John S. Monagan's biography of McKenna, who later went on to establish So Others Might Eat, Martha's Table, and other service organizations in Washington. Over 100 people gathered to excoriate the priest, stomping and hissing at McKenna's appeals for reason and charity. "I don't want my children going to school with [blacks]," one man shouted, "and for that, I am prepared to die."
When McKenna cited the Holy Trinity as an example of diverse members getting along together, someone else in the audience yelled, "I don't want to hear about the Trinity, I want to hear what's going to happen to our families!"
McKenna kept his voice soft and conciliatory despite the torrents of abuse and anger directed at him. When the meeting finally concluded, the priest walked up to one man, held out his hand and said, "I hope there are no hard feelings." The man looked up to the rafters and replied, "There's where you should be hanging from."
It was this mind-set that O'Boyle faced in 1956 when, having successfully integrated the northern sector of his archdiocese, he turned his attention to Southern Maryland. He had held off for years, and had been criticized for it. "Gentlemen," he replied to a group of black reporters who had chided him for not moving fast enough, "I will take the dishes of segregation off the table one at a time. If I pulled the tablecloth off, I would break many of the dishes."
Though O'Boyle had intended to take action quietly, a tactic that had worked well before, the local clergy requested that the archdiocese make an official declaration. Accordingly, an announcement was read at every church in Southern Maryland on May 20, 1956, that the schools would be integrated in the fall.
Community resistance was fierce, but so was the archbishop's determination. "The race question, once we acknowledge that we are all children of the same Father, is . . . simple in principle," O'Boyle said in a speech that year. "It is fundamentally a matter of how we regard our fellow man. Do we segregate, condemn and degrade people on the basis of race? Or we do acknowledge that all men are our brothers in Christ?"
The answer wasn't so obvious to many in Southern Maryland, where segregation had always been a way of life. "People fought it like crazy," says John Donoghue, O'Boyle's personal secretary at the time and now archbishop of Atlanta. "But he wasn't going to give in. If they didn't support the church in this moral cause, that was their problem." The Supreme Court had already ensured that the public schools would provide no alternative.
The archbishop agreed to meet with several delegations from the Southern District on a number of occasions, with one encounter lasting more than seven hours. Though O'Boyle listened patiently, Donoghue says, "they weren't going to change his mind." He remembers the day Little Flower Elementary School in Great Mills, Md., first opened to black children in 1956. State troopers were lined up along the driveway and the grounds were packed with protesters. "They came every day for about a week," says Donoghue, "but eventually realized they weren't going to make a difference and simply went home."
Eleven years after the successful integration of Southern Maryland's Catholic schools, O'Boyle was named a cardinal. He died in 1987 at the age of 91.
CAPTION: Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, above center in 1948, helped integrate the area's Catholic schools with patience and quiet diplomacy. Gonzaga athletic director and football coach Joseph Kozik, hoisted aloft by his players after a game in 1949, had opened the varsity squad to black student John Gabriel Smith despite protests from other teams. (Injury, however, prevented Smith from joining the Eagles).