catholics in the old south -- 4/28/15

Today's selection -- from Flannery by Brad Gooch. Famed American author Flannery O'Connor was raised in Savannah, Georgia in the early 1900s. Though Savannah was largely Protestant, a significant number of Irish Catholics had migrated there during the potato famine of the 1840s. In the early 1900s, though the Irish had been there for generations and the Civil War had long since been lost, it was an era in which Catholics were still viewed with deep suspicion, women enthusiastically attended meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy, and blacks were still strictly segregated under Jim Crow laws:

"Named after the wife of a Civil War hero, the infant [Flannery] O'Connor was initiated at once into a social set haunted by the war still referred to in Savannah in the [nineteen] twenties and thirties as the 'War Between the States' -- a living memory for some, a single generation removed for others. The Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Benjamin J. Keiley, retiring only two years before O'Connor's birth, served in the war as a Confederate drummer boy. Katie Semmes's deceased husband, Raphael Semmes, was the nephew of a famous Confederate admiral of the same name. Though O'Connor later swore, 'I never was one to go over the Civil War in a big way,' she grew up among a set of older women who were forever slipping on white gloves, and putting on big hats, to go off to chapter meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Flannery O'Connor

"The Irish families using St. Joseph's Hospital had a double loyalty -- to Confederate Memorial Day, and to St. Patrick's Day, with St. Patrick winning by a nose. The Irish pride parade in March just managed to overshadow the annual Confederate Day parade held each April 26. As O'Connor later wrote to a friend, 'I was brought up in Savannah where there was a colony of the Over-Irish. They have the biggest St. Patrick's Day parade anywhere around and generally go nutty on the subject.' She went on to exclaim incredulously that she had even heard her hometown compared to Dublin. Making up most Catholics in Savannah, the Irish were certainly a presence. In the year of her birth, two of the six city aldermen were Irish Catholics and so was the city attorney.

"Yet the Irish Catholics of Savannah were given to a bunker mentality, with some justification. Catholics were expressly banned, along with rum, lawyers, and blacks, under the original Georgia Trust in 1733. While that law had long ago been overwritten, and waves of Irish immigrants arrived during the potato famines of the 1840s, an anti-Catholic law was still on the books at the time of O'Connor's birth: the Convent Inspection Bill became Georgia law in 1916. Under this weird legislation, grand juries were charged with inspecting Catholic convents, monasteries, and orphanages, to search for evidence of sexual immorality and to question all the 'inmates,' ensuring that they were not held involuntarily. Tom Watson, elected U.S. senator from Georgia in 1920, went so far as to accuse the bishop of Savannah of keeping 'white slave pens' of missing girls.

"With their ambiguous status, subdivided further into middle-class 'lace curtain' and lower-class 'shanty,' the Irish could at least take comfort that legal segregation didn't apply to them as it did to the city's blacks. Jim Crow laws kept Savannah strictly divided by race. St. Joseph's Hospital was listed in the 'White Department' rather than the 'Colored' section of the Savannah City Directory."


Brad Gooch


Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor


Back Bay Books


Copyright 2009 by Brad Gooch


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