Guest column: Bishop Carpenter and the issue of race

August 20, 2007

The article by the Rev. Doug Carpenter in the July 2007 issue of Episcopal Life brought forth strong memories to many of us who grew up in the Diocese of Alabama. I was especially pleased to see Bishop Carpenter in the less ornate vestments which represent the Episcopal Church to many Episcopalians. I speak here as a cradle Episcopalian, the granddaughter, widow, and sister-in-law of Episcopal clergymen.

Doug Carpenter's facts are not new to me. In contrast, however, a liberal Episcopal priest in another Province IV diocese wrote to me and said he welcomed the article, because it brought new light to the race issue in the Diocese of Alabama: "...Bp. Carpenter's name was addressed first in Dr. King's letter, which was also addressed to his coadjutor, George M. Murray. Many undoubtedly would have assumed he must have been a leading clerical segregationist."

This friend asked me to tell him what I remember about Bishop Carpenter. When I did, he suggested I share my memories.

I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late '30s and early '40s. My family was active at the Church of the Ascension, and Bishop Carpenter was our bishop. At that time, Montgomery and all of Alabama was racially segregated. The term "Black" was not used then as an accepted category of race, as it is now. Doug Carpenter's father was my bishop until 1962 when I moved to Florida.

I have an old but distinct young child's memory of hearing a group of adults in Montgomery talking about Bishop Carpenter. They were going on and on about how much too liberal he was -- how he "loved" the Negroes too much. Later in the 1940s and living in Mobile, Alabama, I was active with the diocesan youth group. When I went to the diocese's Camp McDowell, our youth leader made it clear to all of us that soon we would be welcoming Negroes to our camp, and that we would graciously accept them. All that comprised the milieu of a child and a young Episcopalian in Alabama during those years. My memories surely reflect the leadership of the Episcopal bishop of Alabama.

I moved from Alabama with my husband when he attended Virginia Seminary, 1957-1960. I was a segregationist until then. Before that, I had only been as far north as Maryland on one occasion at age 15.

I had been taught racial segregation since birth. The first Black people whom I met in a social or intellectual setting, were introduced to me at Virginia Seminary, in the late 1950s. Accepting Black people did not happen easily for me. I remember talking with Doug Carpenter, my husband's seminary classmate, about how difficult that was for me. Doug and I had been friends for years, having met at Camp McDowell in the 1940s. I remember Doug being surprised at what I said. That is normal, since he had been out in the world (translate "up North") in school for some time and had made the transition that I was yet to make. It may not have been much of a transition for him, however, with parents who were more liberal than mine. My liberal Province IV friend has pointed out that "...while clearly the majority of white southerners were bigots, there were many who were not."

I lived in New York City for 15 years. People would ask me how I could have ever been a segregationist. I explained that it's like learning to talk. I was taught a way of life. Later, I learned a new way of life, just as some learn to speak a new language. I worked for the Pension Fund in New York and for two presiding bishops. I am pleased to say that this gave me the opportunity to meet people outside the South who try to understand the dichotomy of the racial situation in our country as well as in the Diocese of Alabama, then and now.

The Diocese of Alabama comprised the entire state of Alabama until 1971. Bishop Carpenter, and after 1953, Bishop George M. Murray, his suffragan, led the diocese slowly but steadily to accept racial integration. Unfortunately, both of these bishops were misunderstood by many. The conservatives thought they were too liberal, and the liberals thought they were too conservative.

These are my observations and my memory of Bishop Carpenter and the issue of race. What a great guy he was! Many of us adored him, and I still do. His reputation, as perceived by many who were not involved in his diocese, became a victim of the times. However, if anyone has the love of several generations of an entire state, Bishop Carpenter does.

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