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Years ago I spoke with some people who were members of a church in either Georgia or Florida. They told me that they had heard that during segregation their church had had a red thread or cord that separated the main meeting room, for the reasons of racial segregation.

I wanted to look into this to determine what the underlying reason for this thread had been (if it was in place because of law or public sentiment or some other reason).

So I have two questions I wanted to ask:

  1. During the era of racial segregation in USA, were churches obligated to stay segregated?
  2. (If answer to #1 is "yes") From early 1900's until segregation was abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were there any specific requirements on how churches should implement segregation?
  • In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird the churches seem clearly segregated. Whether any white people went to the black church is unclear. – WS2 Nov 26 '15 at 9:28
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    Could you imagine the awkwardness in those churches when the preacher read verses such as: Galatians 3:28 - There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in jesus. – Ovi Nov 27 '15 at 6:10
  • Prior to the civil war such a law would very likely be a state law, not a Federal law; you'll probably want to specify a state since the rules in Alabama are going to be different from those in Virginia. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 27 '15 at 14:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace Yes. I believe our understanding of 'segregation' has been coloured by 20th-century apartheid in South Africa. The latter was a monolithic system of compulsory racial separation, administered to all intents by a police state. Since slavery was abolished I don't think anything quite as pernicious as that obtained in the United States. – WS2 Nov 28 '15 at 17:19
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My first reaction to this was, "Of course not- it'd be unconstitutional." However, a little further reading elided the fact that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was not incorporated against the states until 1947 (Everson v. Board of Education), so conceivably there could have been such a law on the state or local level before then.

That being said, while I'm far from a scholar of the period, I'm not familiar with any instance of such a law existing. In contrast, I've come across loads of mention of religious institutions self-segregating on many levels, whether within a congregation (as in your example), between congregations, or beyond. To this day the Seventh-Day Adventist church maintains separate conferences for white and black churches. (The conferences aren't named as such, but that is what they are.) And there's a huge body of theological justification for segregation that developed during this period, much of it derived from the theological justification for slavery.

So in this specific instance, the exact reasoning would depend on the denomination of Christianity, but it was very likely that this was a policy implemented voluntarily and not due to any government coercion.

  • Okay, Catholic churches, then? – Ricky Nov 26 '15 at 7:12
  • There was a mix- some parishes were internally segregated, some were racially homogenous. In '53, the archbishop of New Orleans published a letter calling for the end of segregation- you can read it here: archives.arch-no.org/documents/rummel/… – Patrick N Nov 26 '15 at 18:19
  • The gist is that 1. Churches had separate pews for black people, and they were made to go at the end of the line for communion, though this practice was being phased out at the time, 2. There were 'special' churches that were completely black, or nearly so, and 3. Within church societies, there were separate divisions for black and white people. – Patrick N Nov 26 '15 at 18:21
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    Though this is just for the archdiocese of New Orleans, which is something of a special case because of the city's different development from the rest of the South- I couldn't speak to practices in other archdioceses – Patrick N Nov 26 '15 at 18:22

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