As I re-read Parish Boundaries this time, I reflected on what the title meant and how it evolved from the staid title of McGreevy’s 1993 Stanford dissertation, “American Catholics and the African-American Migration, 1919-1970.” In my first two readings of the book—once shortly after it came out and once with leading a graduate seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—I thought of the boundaries in physical terms. I thought of the parish boundaries as coterminous with strictly-enforced neighborhood racial boundaries. It seemed that McGreevy was underscoring that white Catholics did not have room in their neighborhoods for African Americans—even for black Catholics. In this third reading, however, I thought of the boundaries differently. Early in the book, McGreevy describes ethnic parishes as the standard practice of the American church in the first part of the twentieth century. Their boundaries overlapped physically, but not psychologically. Taken as a metaphor for the argument as a whole, the boundaries came across more like psychological limits or cultural constraints that circumscribe the conflict in the book.
|Father James Groppi.
Finally, Parish Boundaries integrates stories about two white priests who loom large in my own research: Francis X. Lawlor and James Groppi. In locally-oriented, twenty-first century scholarship, it is easy to villainize the one and heroicize the other.
Father Lawlor, who operated on the South Side of Chicago, was a teacher and school administrator who became the spearhead for block club organizing to keep out blacks. He was indubitably a racist. In an era when whites were becoming more cautious about the language used to articulate their racism, often encoding or softening it, Lawlor was not hesitant. He forthrightly proclaimed racial differences between blacks and whites. He suggested that blacks might overcome those differences in time, but until that happened, whites must be protected from having blacks live among them. Chicago’s Cardinal Cody exiled Lawlor to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but Lawlor defiantly came back to continue his organizing and was ultimately elected alderman. I very much appreciate McGreevy’s careful observations about Lawlor’s rhetoric, noting that, “He incessantly invoked what he perceived as the parallel example of the civil rights movement.” (232) This description of Lawlor’s tactics is exactly right, although his rhetorical borrowings were not limited to the civil rights movement. Lawlor listened very carefully to what his opponents did and said and cleverly adapted those approaches to his own ends.
James Groppi was a white priest in Milwaukee who spearheaded two hundred consecutive nights of marching for open housing from the fall of 1967 through the spring of 1968. As a white leader of black activists in Catholic context, Groppi looms very large in Milwaukee civil rights historiography. Most local writing about Groppi is fundamentally hagiography, casting him as heroic without careful reflecting on his significance beyond Milwaukee. Parish Boundaries, however, interprets the national significance of the Milwaukee movement as the “site of the most sustained Catholic encounter with urban issues.” (197) Most locally-based histories of Groppi’s work omit this important context.
What happened to James Groppi after his two hundred nights in the national spotlight? He was part of church’s hemorrhaging of young priests in the 1970s, which McGreevy tells us was annually 4.6% of priests between 29 and 34. (246) After leaving the priesthood, Groppi married Margaret Rozga and became a father, worked as a Milwaukee city bus driver, and died untimely young of a brain tumor. Rozga is a retired University of Wisconsin-Waukesha faculty member in English who has done much to keep James Groppi’s memory front and center in Milwaukee’s collective memory.
Unfortunately, McGreevy’s perspective on both of these priests is underappreciated and hard to access. Although search mechanisms have come a long way since Parish Boundaries’ publication in 1996, casual perusal of the book’s overt subject headers disguises some of the gems within. Unless local researchers concur on their own with Parish Boundaries’ ultimate point that the white urban response to African Americans in northern cities was a Catholic response, they may well never find the book it in the first place. This loss is unfortunate especially for junior scholars working at the thesis level, so it is very good to have the opportunity to remind ourselves what an important book Parish Boundaries remains.
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