William O’Brien '21 & Jason Lach '21
Anyone who has taken a US History course knows at least vaguely of the unashamed racism present across our country in the 20th century. Jim Crow laws controlled southern states under the guise of “separate but equal.” In the North, although not always written directly into law, discrimination, prejudice, and outright hatred towards people of color existed to an extent hard to fathom today. It comes as no surprise, then, that the racism that perfused all of society had spread to the Episcopal Church and, more specifically, the St. Albans community. Our foundational tenets of brotherhood, compassion, and community were not available to everyone equally.
The School had been segregated since its inception in 1909. A slight exception worth noting is the enrollment of a few sons of foreign diplomats who would be considered today as “people of color” but somehow were acceptable in the racially segregated community. Race issues were not completely ignored, however, and, as the traditional home for political and social debate on campus, Government Club occasionally hosted discussions around desegregation and civil rights. Records of club meetings show a unanimous vote against Black enfranchisement in 1942 and a 1948 argument on civil rights which ended in a similar result. A 1948 Albanian article said about the school, “It is also true at St. Albans, just as in almost any other private school, we have associated with boys from our own class of society, and thus we have become somewhat narrow-minded concerning many vital issues. And yet the boys we knew at school are the men we will be associating with all our lives, so there is really no need for knowing the opinions of those not so gifted as ourselves.” Although race is not mentioned explicitly, the widespread and “narrow-minded” outlook of the community at the time is evident.
The idea of desegregation at St. Albans had first been introduced by headmaster Canon Lucas, suggesting to the Board of Governors the need “to anticipate the issue” of adopting “an open admissions policy.” One Board member feared it dangerous to admit Black students “not as individual American citizens, but as members of subversive groups.” Without any real support, the proposal was quickly shot down.
The greater push for desegregation was born not in the school community itself but rather the wider Episcopal Church. After the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregated the nation’s public schools, conversations within the Church leadership began regarding their stance on the integration of private, Episcopalian schools.
Eventually, in 1955 the Episcopal Church urged all Episcopal institutions to racially desegregate, yet most schools took many years to put this order into practice. St. Albans’ close relationship with the Diocese meant they were the first of the area’s Episcopalian schools to integrate, earlier than St. Stephens and Episcopal. That being said, St. Albans still faced many obstacles and often pushed back at the idea of integration and open admission policy. Internally, the push for integration solely came from Bishop Angus Dun and his Cathedral Chapter. The Chapter did have some power over the Board of Governors, created in 1948, such as the ability to overrule any decision made by the Board and oversight on transfers of power at the school.
In early 1954, after numerous suggestions for integration had been ignored by the Board, the Chapter ordered the Board produce a serious plan to integrate by that Fall. It may not surprise you that this mandate was met with serious grievance by many in the STA community. Concerns of decreased enrollment, loss of donations, and alumni anger all caused great distress in the community, while the underlying backdrop to it all was still the outright racism that remained strong across the country. In the end, the strong and courageous work of Bishop Dun, Canon Lucas, and Canon Martin prevailed and the school began a gradual integration process in 1956. That year, the C Form officially used an open admissions policy and all other Forms followed the next year. Many years after the fight for integration first began, Frank Snowen ‘64 enrolled as an A Former in 1957, becoming the first Black student to attend St. Albans.