Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester who served in segregated Selma, Ala., during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s had three strikes against them.
The sisters were Yankees. They were Catholics. And they were the so-called “black nuns” who worked with Selma’s African-American population.
Most white folks in Selma during this time refused to have anything to do with members of the order, local sisters recalled recently after they watched a documentary recounting the role men and women religious played in Selma’s civil-rights movement.
The documentary “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change” aired Feb. 9 on public-television stations nationwide, including WXXI in Rochester. Director Jayasri Hart joined Sisters of St. Joseph Barbara Lum and Mary Paul Geck during a Feb. 5 discussion after the documentary’s Rochester premiere at George Eastman House’s Dryden Theater.
The sisters described the finished film as beautiful and well done, even though it brought back dark memories of racism.
“Seeing that again was very emotional,” Sister Lum said after viewing the film.
She said she enjoyed seeing familiar faces again in the documentary footage; she left Selma in 1969 and returned there only once for the 50th anniversary of the sisters’ arrival in the city.
“We feel the spotlight is on the men and women whose rights were championed by the sisters,” said Sister Janice Morgan, congregational president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.
The documentary told of the pervasive racism in Selma up until the 1960s.
“Why burn a cross when you can foreclose a loan,” said Alston Fitts, historian for the Fathers of St. Edmund in Selma, who recounted the segregationist saying in the documentary.
It was a time when a black person and a white person might be killed for eating lunch together and a time when the Ku Klux Klan posted signs warning Selma’s priests that they were being watched. Paved streets and sidewalks ended at the black section of town, and black residents were barred from serving on juries. The White Citizens Council, a white-supremacy group, supported and violently enforced segregationist policies.
In 1940, the Sisters of St. Joseph were invited into that hostile environment by the Edmundite Fathers who had helped Selma’s blacks since 1937. The sisters helped establish the two-story, 32-bed Good Samaritan Hospital, the only hospital in nine counties to treat black citizens. They started a vocational-nursing school and an elementary school, and they occasionally taught black teachers, who were denied training courses available to white teachers.
Sister Geck recalled in the documentary that one boy asked if she was going to teach students at the school the way she taught white children up north. Sister Geck said she would.
“What’s more,” she recalled herself saying, “I expect you to do the same kind of work that they did up north.”
Racial tensions peaked in the 1960s. For two years, the black-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee lined up voters at the county courthouse. Eventually, the white leadership retaliated against the daily protests, banning classes the Rochester Sisters of St. Joseph conducted to tutor blacks in the voter-registration literacy tests. Local courts also supported segregation.
“The surrogate court rejected any holding of mass meetings in churches or congregating in the streets of Selma,” Edmundite Father Ouellet, one of the few white people to publicly support black Selma residents, said in the film. “If so, we could be arrested.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had already had success using nonviolent methods to force integration in Birmingham, was invited to speak several times in Selma to draw attention to the cause.
The idea for a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery evolved from the death of voting-rights demonstrator Jimmy Lee Jackson, who had been shot by a state trooper in Marion, Ala. Jackson died Feb. 26, 1965, at Good Samaritan Hospital. According to the documentary, activists began to say they should march his remains to the capital as a testament to his struggle for freedom.
On March 7, 1965, demonstrators set off for Montgomery but were brutally beaten by state troopers, shot with tear gas and trampled by a mounted sheriff’s posse as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Hearses from the three black funeral homes, which doubled as ambulances for the black population, were quickly overwhelmed as they took injured marchers to Good Samaritan Hospital. Rochester sisters worked around the clock to treat most of the protesters who had been hurt.
The next day, King appealed to the religious community nationwide to fight racism on moral grounds. However, mindful of the anti-Catholic sentiment that pervaded the area, Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile-Birmingham banned anyone in the archdiocese from taking part in the protests and attempted to discourage out-of-town Catholics from joining them.
He told the sisters missioned in Selma that if they joined the march, they would be on the first train out of Alabama, Sister Geck recalled after the film.
“If we left, who was going to be there for the people?” she said.
The decades of goodwill the Rochester sisters and Edmundite priests had established toward the black community helped create unity as white nuns and priests from around the country joined in the protests. Many Catholic volunteers were spurred by the Second Vatican Council’s recommendations of social activism, the documentary said.
As protesters poured into town, the Rochester sisters sheltered hundreds of them, including sisters from other orders whose superiors sent them despite the archbishop’s pleas.
One of those sisters, Franciscan Sister of Mary Antona Ebo, described the fear she felt as a black nun traveling to Selma. Sister Ebo rarely left St. Mary’s Infirmary in St. Louis, Mo., where she worked as a medical librarian. She knew what racism felt like: Although she and two other women were the first African-American sisters in their order, they were forced to go through a separate novitiate program.
When Sister Ebo traveled to Selma, she was immediately heralded for being both black and holy, the documentary said. Leading a crowd of protesters, who were stopped by police, Sister Ebo told television crews, “I am here today because yesterday I voted in St. Louis.”
Eventually, under federal protection, the march to Montgomery took place March 21-24, 1965, and participants delivered to the governor a petition asking for voting rights. The event sparked passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. As he signed the law, President Lyndon Johnson hailed the contributions of Rochester’s sisters.
“What was done in Selma was not done in one day, and it was done by many, many people,” Hart said after the film.
Following the 1965 protests, Catholic parishes, local schools and hospitals were integrated. Though Good Samaritan Hospital folded, today Rochester sisters serve both black and white clients in rural Alabama clinics.
Hart said she originally set out to make a series on the history of American nuns. Though the project was never funded, Hart’s research partner had uncovered a significant amount of information on the St. Louis nuns who had taken part in the Selma protests.
Hart tracked down sisters through methods such as researching lists of passengers on planes to Selma and identifying sisters in documentary footage. She then interviewed several who had played significant roles, including a Chicago nun who marched the entire 50 miles to Montgomery in a mud-caked habit.
When Hart applied for grants to make the film, she found a lot of interest, and she received local support from WXXI and the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“This is one of the most rapidly funded projects I’ve ever done,” Hart said after the film.
In Selma, Hart said, some white residents worried that the documentary would not reflect the city’s current racially diverse and accepting nature. However, black residents universally accepted and supported the project, she said.
The documentary includes images of today’s Selma, which has murals commemorating those who died in the civil-rights movement and a street named in honor of King.
Sister Geck, who began working in Selma in 1962, recalled how the conflict focused a national spotlight on the city. When she returned to Rochester for a vacation in 1963, family members asked her where Selma was. But on her next vacation, that wasn’t the case.
“When I came in ’64, nobody asked me where Selma was,” Sister Geck said after the film. “Everybody knew.”