Civil Rights Days in South Georgia

Written by The Rt. Rev. H.W. Shipps in May, 2007

In 1955, as a Postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Georgia, I was sent to seminary at the School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee, TN, by the Rt. Rev’d Albert Rhett Stuart, Bishop of Georgia. While on active duty as an officer in the United States Navy, my wife Louise and I had resided in Savannah and were active in St. Paul’s parish. Following are some reminiscences, which may not always be in chronological sequence.

Louise and I both had grown up in northern families of colonial ancestry. Most seminarians at Sewanee were native Southerners, and we were pleased to be welcomed, and enjoyed our new environment. Two years prior to my arrival, the entire faculty of the School of Theology had resigned because of Sewanee’s refusal to admit Black students. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Stuart, from South Carolina, obtained admission for the first Black student to enter the college.

During the summer of 1957, I was assigned to be Seminarian in Charge of St. James Church, a mission in Quitman, GA, Brooks County, bordering the Florida panhandle. Arriving in Quitman after dark on a warm June evening, we found a large crowd gathered on the courthouse grounds at the center of town; we were in the midst of a Klu Klux Klan rally. Arrayed along the courthouse steps were several dozen Klan members in white robes with pointed hoods veiling their faces. The speaker shouting unintelligibly through a bull horn, we later learned, was a Baptist preacher. Black citizens were clustered quietly across the street. It was an extremely troubling scene. We wondered how we would fare in Quitman.

St. James was a small congregation with a quaint carpenter gothic building, not far from the town square and courthouse. We were welcomed with delightful Southern hospitality by the mostly elderly parishioners. The summer was a happy experience, except for one other disturbing incident. On a late summer evening Louise and I stopped at a roadside ice cream stand just west of town on Rt. 84. Leaving the store, we saw that numerous cars had lined the road, blocking our exit. A car with glowing electric cross on its roof appeared, and the men standing beside the cars donned Klan outfits. The cars formed a line and disappeared west into the dark towards Cairo and Thomasville. Louise sought action from me: “Stop them, stop them!”, as if I could! We were shocked, worried about their destination and actions. Of course there were no reports in the news.

In May 1958, I was ordained deacon at the seminary by Bishop Stuart, and on graduation was assigned to St. Mark’s Church, Radium Springs, three miles southeast of Albany, GA (pop. 109,000). Arriving at the church’s vicarage on Virginia Avenue, we discovered a gracious lady on her knees scouring the bathroom, Alice Wight, wife of the Senior Warden, of a leading family from Cuthbert, GA. The Shipps family, now numbering four, was cordially accepted into the community with its famous springs, lovely homes surrounding the golf course, and more modest homes and apartments east of Radium Springs Road, where the Vicarage was located. Most of St. Mark’s parishioners were native to the area. Wendell Wight, husband of Alice, was an independent stock broker from Thomasville. Horace Caldwell and his wife Marie from Homerville, GA, were proprietors of the Radium Springs spa, and they had sponsored the fledgling St. Mark’s in their home before the first church building. Several families were from various parts of the country, the Hansons from the north, the D’Aubert family from New Orleans. Nearby, Turner Air Force Base and the U.S. Marine Corps Depot also brought diversity to St. Mark’s and the community; at least two Service wives were English. Perhaps the family with the highest profile was the James H. Gray family. Jim and Dorothy, parents of James Jr., Geoffrey, and Connie, were from Massachusetts. Jim was owner and publisher of the Albany Herald and Chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party (I am convinced he grew up Republican in Massachusetts). Due to Dottie’s family’s textile business, they were financially comfortable. Jim was elected Mayor of Albany around 1960. Along with “Duck” Wight, Jim was a strong financial supporter in construction of a new church building for St. Mark’s, which was completed December 1960. The Gray’s sons were regular acolytes at the 8AM Eucharist. In January, 1959, I was ordained to the priesthood in my home parish, Christ Church, Bordentown, NJ, as a gesture to my family and friends there. Graciously, “Duck” Wight and Horace Caldwell made the trip north for the occasion.

Meanwhile, in downtown Albany, St. Paul’s Church on Jefferson St. saw the arrival of a new Rector in 1959, The Rev’d A. Nelson Daunt, with Hilda and their four children. The Daunts were from Ireland, but had served two parishes in the South before coming to Albany. Nelson, with his winning smile and good humor, became the most influential priest and mentor in my life. He and I, as ‘outsiders’, appraised the Albany situation together. In those days the Albany bus station had water fountains, bathrooms and waiting rooms designated by race. Blacks could not enter the public library or visit the zoo, and were segregated in movie theatres and other public buildings. Even churches were segregated. Quickly it became clear that the only place in the White side of town that Blacks and Whites could meet together was in St. Paul’s or St. Mark’s parish hall. I attended night meetings in Black churches on the south side of town. In 1961, my summer vacation supply priest, Fr. Edward O. Waldron, then of the Diocese of Indianapolis, reported to me several visits to Black churches for what he termed “midnight communion”!

In addition to responsibilities at St. Mark’s, I was appointed priest in charge of St. John’s Church, a small Black congregation on Residence Street in the north, predominately White section of Albany. I was warmly received by the lovely people of St. John’s, among them John Phillips Jr., Egbert J. Bacon, Aurelia Noble, and Floyd G. Noble, who represented a variety of professions. Members of St. John’s were not leaders in the civil rights movement, nor, to my memory, was Albany State College, a Black institution on the east side of the Flint River, greatly involved in the Cause.

In perhaps 1961 it became the turn of St. Paul’s and St. Mark’s to host the Annual Diocesan Convention, where diocesan clergy and representative laity, totaling about 250 persons, including a number from our Black congregations, gather for two or three days. I don’t remember where the Black clergy and laity were accommodated overnight. Heretofore Bishop Stuart had required the meeting and meals to be held in parish church buildings, as we were not able to have integrated meetings or meals apart from our own property. When Horace and Marie Caldwell volunteered the use of the banquet room in their Radium Springs spa for the integrated Convention dinner, Fr. Daunt and I were elated. This was a Georgia first! Convention speaker was the Bishop of Michigan. As clergy and delegates were seated at the banquet, Fr. Daunt and I were dismayed to see that Black members of the Convention were segregated at separate tables; Bishop Stuart was livid. Before he introduced the speaker, he apologized to all. Fr. Daunt and I were very embarrassed and disappointed.

I always was firmly committed to civil rights for all people, made my position very clear, and worked for that goal. I also learned that progress often could be accomplished more effectively by careful, deliberate work rather than incendiary actions. The civil rights scene in Albany intensified. The Rev’d Martin Luther King was arrested in Albany in December 1961 by the resolute county sheriff, one of the few who were able to do so until Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham. Jim Gray promptly put a blackout on all civil rights news in his Albany Herald and the local TV station, which he also owned. Ralph McGill provided Albany news in his Atlanta Constitution. “Sit-ins” at stores and lunch counters were taking place in Albany as elsewhere. Louise was shocked one day downtown to see Black “demonstrators” being taken in paddy wagons to jail. I visited one ornery young parishioner in the city jail, arrested for disorderly conduct (throwing eggs at Black protesters). Integration eventually came to the public library, but Alice Wight, chair of the library board, uniquely addressed the problem of Blacks sitting with Whites: all chairs were removed; vertical integration only!

“Kneel Ins” by Blacks in churches were anticipated, and “Duck” Wight, Senior Warden of St. Mark’s, proposed we call the sheriff should Blacks appear at St. Mark’s. I told him that would not be the best course of action; actually I would have called the sheriff to make sure Blacks were accommodated. None came, however. Liberal groups from Atlanta came to Albany; the Georgia Council on Human Relations leader, Ms Pauley, came almost monthly. She was a dear, gentle messenger of love and concern. During this period I joined the Episcopal Society for Cultural & Racial Unity (ESCRU) organized by an Atlanta priest, Fr. Morris, brother of a Georgia priest’s spouse, Ann Berlin. Meanwhile in Savannah, Bishop Stuart, joined by Mayor Malcolm Maclean, a prominent attorney, worked to secure support of the white power structure. Their exemplar leadership precluded any major racial conflicts in Savannah, and helped assure a comparatively peaceful transition period.

In October 1963 Bishop Stuart called me to be Vicar of a growing mission in Savannah, Holy Apostles, on the south side of town. Louise and I became members of the local chapter of the NAACP and I was moderately active with them. I worked with the Rev’d L. Scott Stelle, a respected Presbyterian minister, and St. Matthew’s members Gertrude Greene and Martha Wilson. W.W. Law, a Black postman, was a well known Savannah civil rights champion. On Sunday following the assassination of President John Kennedy, to show that the means of killing had changed from a crucifixion to bullets, I hung my .22 rifle on the cross over the altar at Holy Apostles. Some of the congregation supported the witness, but enough others were so upset that I removed it before the service began.

These years were often anxious times. Bishop Stuart, well known for his strong leadership, lived in the Episcopal Residence on the comer of Victory Drive and Reynolds Street. His study had large glass windows. Louise and I would sometimes pass his home at night, and noted the bishop at his desk with his back to the windows. We worried an assassin would have an easy target, and I told him of our anxiety. In his selfless manner, he responded, “Thank you, son,” but never took precaution. The Selma march took place in March 1965. I sought permission to participate from Bishop Stuart who wisely advised against it. It would have a negative effect on the ministry of a priest from New Jersey!

The Pastor of a leading local Protestant Church on Victory Drive, First Congregational was forced to resign because of his effort to make Blacks welcome in his congregation. With permission of Bishop Stuart, I offered him use of Holy Apostles building Sundays at noon for his new integrated congregation. This began a co-operative inter-racial ecumenical event lasting about two years until the visiting congregation obtained their own building.

The Order of the Holy Cross stationed four monks in Savannah for several months: Fathers Connor Lynn, Tom Schultz, Clark Trafton and Brother Raphael, who rented a row house on Price Street. Their work with the Black community resulted in establishment of The Institute for Black Culture on the property, to encourage Black pride through arts and culture. Its Board included Otis Johnson, now Mayor of Savannah. Holy Apostles participated as one of the sponsoring parishes. I visited the center frequently, taking part in programs. With other clergy, I also participated in demonstrations for open housing at meetings of the Savannah Housing Authority.

St. John’s Church was a prominent downtown parish, The Rev’d Earnest Risley being the rector. At a Convocation gathering of Episcopal Young Churchmen at St. Paul’s Church, Mr. Risley was present with St. John’s EYC when Fr. Gustolf Caution arrived with members of the EYC from Savannah’s Black parish, St. Matthew’s. Mr. Risley and his EYC very pointedly departed. Subsequently, during Lent of (if I recall correctly) 1966, Mr. Risley invited me, along with The Rev’d Mark Becton, rector of St. George’s Church on the southside, to be Wednesday evening Lenten preachers. Both Fr. Becton and I wrote that we would be pleased to accept the invitation if all persons would be admitted to the church. Mr. Risley replied that would not be possible. I reported this to Bishop Stuart. Shortly thereafter, racial issues motivated St. John’s Church to break from the Episcopal Church, although Mr. Risley cited, as the primary reason, the unorthodoxy of many in the leadership of the Episcopal Church and especially what he considered the heresies of Bishop James A. Pike. This precipitated the process that led to Mr. Risley being deposed from the priesthood. As Secretary of the Diocese, I was present for the “Bell, Book and Candle” event in the Diocesan House chapel. That portion of the congregation of St. John’s which refused to follow Mr. Risley began meeting as a congregation in the lounge of the old DeSoto Hotel, and Bishop Stuart assigned me as one of “St. John’s in Exile” supply priests. Mrs. Sam Varnedoe, Lila (‘Diamond Lil”), was a staunch supporter of this loyal group. Mr Risley subsequently founded his own church in a former Jewish Temple on Montgomery St. After a few years of patient deliberation by Bishop Stuart, St. John’s returned to the Diocese.

Savannah had two ministerial associations defined by race. I soon joined the White group. The more liberal clergy therein moved to form a united Chatham County Ministerial Association, where clergy of both races could meet together. Since High School Baccalaureate Services were always separated by race, we resolved to provide a single Baccalaureate service, and sought a high profile speaker. We engaged the new Grayson Stadium and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders agreed to be featured speaker. Surprisingly well attended that first year, this event soon became the norm for Savannah, with little repercussion. At that time I also became a public supporter for the end of the war in Viet Nam, as well as gun control, and was interviewed for news articles and TV. During this period, our family was subject to numerous harassing telephone calls daily, for several months.

In 1970 Bishop Stuart sent me, with a Vestry call, to St. Alban’s Parish in Augusta. Before leaving Savannah, I was honored by the NAACP at a meeting in a Black church in Sand Fly.

St. Alban’s, under the leadership of my predecessor Fr. Edward O. Waldron, had become the first fully integrated parish in the Diocese of Georgia, and likely in the South. In my tenure, St. Albans continued and expanded its ministry to people of all races, and also became one of the first parishes to have female acolytes and chalice administrators, Black as well as White, and a female Senior Warden. I was rector of St. Alban’s until September 1983, when I was elected Coadjutor Bishop of Georgia, and returned to Savannah. In all of this, I received the unfailing support and encouragement from my dear wife, Louise.

+H W Shipps