Upholding Segregation: Racist Seating Policies in Southern Presbyterian Churches | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Upholding Segregation: Racist Seating Policies in Southern Presbyterian Churches

June 12, 2023
Background: Decatur Presbyterian Church (Decatur, Ga.) postcard, 1962. Front: Session minutes, Decatur Presbyterian Church.

Harmful Content Alert: This story contains outdated and offensive language. 

In the South in the early 1960s, churches debated whether and how to accommodate African Americans who came to worship. The US Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision upended legal segregation, and intentionally intercultural congregations emerged to challenge both de facto and de jure segregation in the church. Berea in St. Louis, responding to combined white flight and resettlement, hung a fisherman's net outside the church to signify its "first century Christianity" and became a hotbed of the peace movement. Kennedy Heights Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati labored to stop white flight in its neighborhood and developed into a naturally intercultural church. And Decatur's Oakhurst Presbyterian Church during this time dedicated itself to intercultural ministry, even as its 900-member white majority congregation shrank to become a mixed group of 80.

Both extant Presbyterian denominations in the South were arguably integrated at the national level from about 1917. In the PCUS, by the early 1940s, 8 Black congregations were represented in majority white presbyteries, and the other 39 Black churches had representation at the General Assembly via the Synod of Snedecor, the successor to a once entirely separate denomination, the Afro-American Presbyterian Church. In the UPCUSA, Black churches of the South reported to all-Black presbyteries and synods, such that, Katie Cannon growing up in Kannapolis, N.C. "just assumed the General Assembly was also all-Black." Segregation, then, was chiefly maintained at the level of the church session.

On August 7, 1960 Black students in Atlanta staged the first co-ordinated "kneel-in" at area churches. In some cases the students were seated without trouble, in others they were directed to an off-site room with a video feed. In one case they refused to be seated in the balcony and elected to stand in the foyer. A Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) newsletter heralded the action: "the 'kneel-in' will be one of the next important phases of the student movement," directly confronting what Martin Luther King Jr. would call in 1963, "the most segregated hour in Christian America."

With all this as background, the session of Decatur Presbyterian Church drafted a motion on integrated seating that perfectly embodied what J.K. Kosek called "the tension between a racially moderate image and a white supremacist practice." At the outset of the motion, the church maintained that balcony seating, sufficient in the old sanctuary to accomodate African Americans--such as existed for slaves and their immediate descendants across the country from Princeton N.J. to Johns Island S.C.--was not installed in the new sanctuary as a pragmatic matter: "It has always been the position of the Decatur Presbyterian Church over many years to provide a place for colored people who care to worship in our sanctuary. In the old church the gallery was so used. In the new church no provision was made. It appeared when built unnecessary."

Decatur, church and town alike, had grown swiftly in the 1930s and 1940s, and the congregation helped organize five new churches in those decades, among them the African American Presbyterian church in Decatur, Trinity, in 1944. One church history notes that the balcony seating of the old edifice caused concern: "Some of us recall having an uneasy feeling when the second story Sanctuary of the old church became more and more crowded, wondering if the supports might give way." The church completed construction of a new sanctuary in 1952. The 1960 statement about seating for Black people, "It appeared when built unnecessary," comprehends this background -- the old gallery seating historically available for Black people was rickety, and a new Black church had already been established.

Session proposed a "permanent" seating policy: "The ushers are to reserve the back pew of center section for seating any colored visitors until 11:15 o'clock and after this hour they may not be admitted if this space is occupied by others. In case any negroes apply for membership in our Church, it is understood that they will be referred to Trinity Presbyterian Church of Decatur."

Even greater concern was shown for "intermingling" of children in the proposed policy: "Furthermore, the Sunday School and Youth work is to remain on a completely segregated basis so there will be no intermingling of white and colored boys and girls in this area. To assure this, any colored children or young people who may request attendance in Sunday School or Youth activities of our church will be referred to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Decatur. We further move not to allow any teacher or outside speaker to teach or encourage our young people to have social activity with our colored brethren." 

On October 23, 1960 Decatur's session considered the seating policy. The item was amended to clarify "that the term 'back pew' be construed to mean the row of chairs which may be placed at the rear of the center section." As amended, the permanent seating policy passed unanimously.

On October 17, the session of Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church (Macon, Ga.) passed a similar seating policy: "that in the event a person of the Negroid race should try to be seated at a Worship Service that for the sake of peace and harmony of the people that the following action be taken by the ushers: 

1. Inform these people of the Negro Presbyterian Church on Washington Ave.

2. If they insist on being seated that they be seated in the vestibule.

3. If they refuse to be seated in the vestibule, they shall be refused seats.

4. If they cause further disturbance that a Peace Officer be called."

Similar actions ultimately divided the session and the congregation of First Presbyterian Church (Birmingham, Ala.) in 1963. According to their former minister, Shannon Webster, during a wave of kneel-ins, session ordered the doors to the church locked shortly before worship. Their pastor, Ed Ramage, seeing this one Sunday, strode to the back of the sanctuary, opened the doors with a slam, got back up in the pulpit and told the congregation "I don't care what you think. I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and these doors will stay open." 

April 21, 1963 minutes of First Presbyterian Church (Birmingham, Ala.), courtesy of Patt Woolverton

First Birmingham would struggle and backslide over segregated seating over the next few years. On April 21, 1963 session met at 10:40 AM and at 4:30 PM. In the second session, during a "short discussion of the visitations of Negroes to church services" Ramage said "we are committed to open the doors to worship to all who come to worship." Session moved to postpone any action about seating for a week. On April 26, session moved to have "two mature men" sit by the door and make a judgement on the scene, and "usher said visitors and seat them, or request them quietly to leave." On May 3 session again took up "visitation of Negroes to the worship services" and after discussion of the rumor that "Negroes are paid to attend white churches," moved to seat any Black visitors in the balcony.

On September 15, 1963 four members of the United Klans of America planted a minimum of 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church; the explosion killed four girls in the church basement -- Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

In November 1963 First Birmingham's session called a congregation meeting to dissolve the call to Ed Ramage; Ramage had accepted a job with St. Paul Presbyterian Church (Houston, Tex.). On March 18, 1964, preparing for the Easter season and more possible visits from their Black neighbors, Elder H. C. Tynes moved that the policy of seating Black people in the balcony be ended, and "that we refuse them admission to Church services of Worship (under present conditions) Sunday Morning and Evening; this to include Sunday school services, Wednesday night services, and Youth Fellowship meetings." The motion was approved 10 to 4. Session modified the policy of refusal within four days, writing "If an attempt by polite means to stop those who came (under present conditions) should fail, that a certain portion of the Sanctuary be set aside for Negroes should they refuse to leave upon requestand force themselves into the service and therefore NOT cause a disturbance." 

March 18, 1964 minutes of First Birmingham.

In 1964, the General Assembly of the PCUS passed an amendment to the Book of Order prohibiting segregation in worship. Congregations soon had to align their official policies with their new Constitution. Vernon Broyles was one of the ministers reckoning with the new order, telling his congregation in Wagram, North Carolina, "Brethren I think we are out of accord with the Constitution of our church." The next year, Martin Luther King Jr. would accept an invitation to the Christian Action Conference at Montreat, and would deliver an address called "The church on the frontier of racial tension".

First Birmingham ended its muddled seating directive on April 15, 1965, calling on ushers to seat Black visitors "in any convenient pew available."

For its part, Tattnall Square's session was not responsive to official desegregation. In October 1965, their minister G. Dana Waters, III presented the request of their youth group that Tattnall Square host the presbytery's Youth Rally. The clerk of session notes: "This would be an integrated meeting" to include the youth groups from Washington Street Presbyterian Church (Dublin, Ga.) and Peabody Heights Presbyterian Church (Eastman, Ga.). The session deferred action until the November meeting and asked Waters to prepare a Bible study in defense of integrated meetings. No action was taken in November, and at the December meeting, the session moved to approve Waters's request to dissolve the pastoral relationship.

Excerpts from session minutes of Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church (Macon, Ga.), accession 22-0411

In the 1975 church history of Decatur, no mention is made of the evident tension within session surrounding segregated worship, and the whole period of the 1960s is summed up in one paragraph, where "the black revolution and rapid change in the racial composition of this area" is slotted alongside the American war in Vietnam, "the tragedy of drug use among our young people," and "inflation and the threat of serious depression."

Decatur Presbyterian Church like many others is reformed and reforming. Their current session includes several African American ruling elders, and members of both churches, Trinity and Decatur, commune during Wednesday night suppers. Tattnall Square dissolved in 2010.

Following action of the 224th General Assembly, many PC(USA) congregations have embarked on self-study, examining exactly these kinds of actions of session -- the maintenance of white supremacy by administrative means, embedded in bylaws and policies. If your congregation has undertaken similar work, let us know.

Learn more:

Resources for Self-Study on Racism 

J.J. Scott papers. McCain Library Special Collections. Agnes Scott College, Decatur, GA.

Moses Edward James, A history of the Snedecor Memorial Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Johnson C. Smith University, 1952.

Dwyn M. Mounger, Racial Attitudes in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 1944—1954, Journal of Presbyterian History, 1970. 

J. K. Kosek, “Just a Bunch of Agitators”: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 2013. 

Caroline McKinney Clarke, The story of the Decatur Presbyterian Church, 1825-1975