“From the Archives” Black Catholic Life in Alexandria in the Early 20th Century
Mrs. Naomi Theresa Quinn Thomas, a lady of 94 at the time, was interviewed as Saint Mary was preparing to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 1995. A member of the parish as a child, she was an honored guest at the parish bicentennial Mass celebrated on September 30, 1995, by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore and Arlington Bishop John R. Keating.
Describing her experiences as a young black Catholic living in Northern Virginia, Mrs. Thomas explained that African American parishioners of the early 20th century worked long hours and performed hard manual labor. Women typically worked as maids, laundresses, cooks and in other domestic positions. The children often joined the work force before they were teenagers. Saint Mary’s black parishioners generally did not have time for the sort of parish organizations and activities that white parishioners enjoyed, she said.
Mrs. Thomas was raised as a Baptist before going to live with her aunt, Louisa Hall, and her aunt’s family on a farm in Fairfax County. She received instruction in the Catholic faith from Mrs. Dwyer, who taught catechism classes to the black children in her home on Prince Street. The family traveled into town in a wagon on Saturday and spent the night with relatives in Alexandria so they could attend Mass on Sunday. The aunt, Mrs. Hall, had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart and tried to attend Mass every First Friday as well. Other black parishioners who lived outside of the area took the train into Alexandria for Mass.
During that time, segregation was the law of the land. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in businesses, churches, courtrooms, etc., in the American South between the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction and the beginning of the civil rights movements in the 1950s. As a child, Mrs. Thomas remembered sitting in the “black section” of Saint Mary’s church because “that is just the way things were.” She said she did not question the situation. She believed the fact that black Catholics had a church to attend in Alexandria was more important than where they sat in that church.
In 1913, Saint Mary’s black parishioners petitioned the bishop to establish a black parish in Alexandria, leading to the founding of Saint Joseph Catholic Church at 711 North Columbus Street. The church was dedicated in 1916. Once Saint Joseph’s was established, most black Catholics who had attended Mass at Saint Mary – including Mrs. Thomas – began worshiping at Saint Joseph. In 1967, Saint Joseph’s was re-designated from an ethnic parish for black Catholics to a parish with territorial boundaries.
– Kitty Guy, Parish Historian
Throughout 2020, the Basilica of Saint Mary will present “From the Archives.” It is a weekly feature online and in our bulletin spotlighting the history of the parish. All of our “From the Archives” features are located here.