Having completed a summer of study and retreat, I had received my new assignment on St. Dominic's feast day, to teach in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. One of our council members interrupted me on my way to the bus waiting to transport a number of us to the train station. She gently informed me that I would not be taking the train to Kingfisher, but to Mobile, Alabama. I knew little or nothing about either place, and I willingly accepted this last-minute change of plans.
It was the 60s, Vatican II was in full swing, and the times, they were a-changin'. Until being sent to teach sixth grade at Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Mobile, where the Dominicans of Sinsinawa had administered both the grade and high school since the '40s, my experience had been in Illinois and Wisconsin, teaching third and fourth grades in all-white, Catholic schools.
My "southern exposure" began the moment I stepped off the train in the August heat, wearing our traditional habit: a close fitting cap, topped with a long black veil, and a long white habit covered by a black mantle or cloak. After noticing the extreme humidity and heat, I next noticed the "White Only" signs for the waiting rooms, rest rooms and drinking fountains. One of the African American parishioners met me as I emerged from the white waiting room to be driven to the convent in the segregated black part of town.
Having grown up in a white suburb of Chicago, attending schools with children who looked like me, and entering a religious community with very few women of color, I was ill prepared for this experience. However, I do believe that segregation was just as prevalent in the North; but we did not have signs on it.
In Mobile, we learned something new almost every day. When the large, modern library downtown was contacted to arrange a visit for our first graders, we were informed that the library for the Heart of Mary children was on Davis Avenue. We were familiar with this library, which, of course lacked adequate books, space and services.
In the summer, our program included a Friday afternoon trip to the beach. We piled as many children as would fit into a van and a car and headed for the beach. The van may have held as many as 15 or 20 children, sitting on the floor, once we removed the seats. Obviously, there were no seat belts, and no laws requiring them. One of the sisters took the older children to the pier, where they could jump into the deep water, while the other sisters stayed with the younger children in the shallow water. One time a policeman approached and asked what we were doing there. Although it seemed fairly obvious, we explained that we were bringing our students to the beach as part of their summer school experience. We really had not known that this was a white-only beach, but we continued to come every Friday, and the policeman did not return.
We took part in many of the marches that were held, and on one occasion, about a hundred of us, sisters, lay people, and two priests, were arrested. A city ordinance had been passed that afternoon that forbade more than two people to walk together on the sidewalk. We spent a night in jail before being released. Every Thursday morning for the next few months, we had to appear in court, where we heard that our case was to be continued to the following week. It was months later that we were excused from court appearances, and years later that our case was dismissed, the ordinance under which we had been arrested having been declared unconstitutional.
Recently, I was musing on my Mobile experiences as we drove home to Jacksonville, Florida, from our 20th and last trip to Fort Benning, Georgia. We have participated in the vigil and peaceful protest held annually to commemorate the murdered and disappeared indigenous people in Latin America and to work for the closing of the School of the Americas. This annual vigil will move from Fort Benning to a border site somewhere in Texas, where detention camps are set up for immigrants and refugees.
As we drove past miles of cotton fields and pecan groves, I thought of how little the landscape has changed over the years. Just as we have progressed from manual slave labor to mechanized forms of picking cotton, so, too, have our patterns of injustice become more refined. The "White Only" signs are now visible only to the most practiced inner eyes.
Perhaps I have not grown wiser since my early years in Mobile, but neither have I grown comfortable with injustice when I perceive it. I still react when I see wrongs perpetuated. I write letters and sign petitions. I participate in prayer vigils and carry signs in front of the courthouse on evenings when there is a state-sanctioned execution scheduled in Florida, where we run second only to Texas in executing prisoners.
I am able to do this because I belong to a group of sisters and lay people who believe in the Dominican value of speaking truth to power. We believe that our efforts to raise consciousness and expend our energy for the cause of justice and equal rights for all people are responsibilities incumbent on us as members of the human family and followers of Christ.
It has been over 50 years since I first set foot in Mobile, and I have never been to Kingfisher. Perhaps I would have reached the same conclusions had I gone there. One thing I know, for sure, is that I experienced an awakening of my consciousness and a passion for justice during my years in Mobile. I certainly learned more than I taught and, for that, I am humbly and eternally grateful.
[Elizabeth Fiorite has enjoyed being a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa for over 60 years. Her early years of ministry were as a teacher and principal in Catholic elementary schools. Her second career, after losing her sight, was as a social services counselor to others with vision loss which she did for 20 years until 2013. She lives with two other Dominican Sisters in Jacksonville, Florida, where they engage in peace and justice ministries.]