Institutionalized segregation

Daily Reading for April 14 • Edward Thomas Demby, 1957, and Henry Beard Delany, 1928, Bishops

Sitting at the back of the church, the Right Reverend Edward T. Demby, the only black Episcopal bishop with jurisdiction in the United States, looked up to see the Right Reverend Edwin Saphore, the acting bishop of Arkansas, extend the communion plate in the direction of the black clergy. Simultaneously, the Reverend William T. Holt, rector of the host church, stood to one side of Saphore and gesticulated with all the dignified urgency he could muster, a silent yet unmistakable “Would the colored clergy please come forward for communion!” Heads turned. The organist struck up another stanza of the communion hymn, prolonging the invitation and suppressing whispers. The situation Demby had tried desperately to avoid was upon him. He had been told that the black clergy were not welcome at this service. Yet the proposed alternative, a separate service for the black priests in the basement of the church, was out of the question. Resigned to sit out the festivities on the back pew, Demby looked up in amazement as those responsible for this humiliation exhibited a change of heart. The two white clergymen beckoned the erstwhile outcasts to come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, after all. Demby sat stoically while his long-established habit of accommodation made war with the clear moral imperative rising up within him. He must not, at all costs, allow himself to be forced across that vacillating frontier separating discretion and Uncle Tom. According to Lily Billingsley, wife of the senior warden, or chief layman, of St. Paul’s, Demby turned to the four black priests beside him and whispered, “If they ask you to come, refuse.”

Racial integration means trouble. That is, whenever an organization incorporates a racial pariah into its membership, with all the rights and privileges pursuant thereto, conflict is a foregone conclusion. . . . For the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the vortex of the struggle over race was the period from 1883 to 1953, when the church succumbed to the anti-African American spirit of the country and institutionalized segregation in the name of Christianity, which is to say, order. Bishop Demby’s ministry was the embodiment of this experience. He represented the many black Episcopalians of his era who believed that the keys to assimilation into the life of the church, and the country, for that matter, were education and moral rectitude. . . .

In this era of disillusionment and compromise, Demby lost respect and he won respect. Unlike many of his black Episcopal brethren, Demby never quite made the transition to collective action. For the most part, he practiced accommodation in the face of racist behavior, working with the system to achieve his ends rather than challenging it directly. . . . He was at heart a creature of calling, a man going about the business of being a Christian. Looking at it from his perspective, he aspired to orthodoxy, which, given his office, necessitated innumerable affirmations of certain biblical truths regarding the equality of men before God. He was being obedient. Eventually, however, doggedness and orthodoxy created an opportunity. In one of the keynote speeches in Episcopal history, Demby heralded the demise of the segregated church, converting the church’s leading experiment in segregation into an iconoclast of segregation. Demby’s ministry represents the zenith and the demise of Jim Crow in the Episcopal Church.

From Black Bishop: Edward T. Demby and the Struggle for Racial Equality in the Episcopal Church by Michael J. Beary (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

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