Segregated Worship

Tucson's black churches have a long and vital history

"Sunday morning was the most segregated time in the United States," recalls retired Tucson Unified School District administrator Dr. Anna Jolivet, talking about the 1940s and earlier. "There was no encouragement or welcoming (by white churches for African-Americans to join them)."

Reienforcing this viewpoint, a local report prepared in 1946 stated: "There is no white church (in Tucson) which displays any sign near its front entrance saying: 'Negroes are welcome in this House of God'. ... No white church has any Negro members and few, if any, Negroes ever attend services in white churches."

Responding to similar religious racism decades earlier, two black churches were founded in town around 1900. While the small African Methodist Episcopal congregation met for awhile in the court house, Rev. Bell was leading a local Baptist revival. From this movement, 10 people joined together to form what would later become Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

Originally using space downtown near the railroad depot, it initially was called the Second Baptist Church. By 1910, the congregation occupied a building at Fifth Street and Ninth Avenue and had changed its name to Mount Calvary. In 1920, the membership built their own church at the corner of 10th Avenue and Fourth Street.

According to a master's thesis from the University of Arizona, by 1933, Tucson had a variety of African-American churches. To serve a black population of approximately 1,000 (out of a total of about 30,000 residents), five churches were available.

Having a membership just more than 200, Mount Calvary was the largest of these. It paid its pastor $1,500 a year and provided him a free home.

More than 70 years ago, the local A.M.E. congregation was slightly smaller than Mount Calvary's. Holding services in a building at 17th Street and Convent Avenue in Tucson's barrio, it had 165 members.

There were three other African-American churches in Tucson in 1933. The Phillip's Chapel Colored Methodist Episcopal Church had been organized eight years earlier and had 85 members. Both the Holiness Church and the Church of God in Christ held services in rented buildings and each had a membership around 80.

Tucson native Jolivet--who faced racism throughout her life and career, including the start of her TUSD career, when she was allowed to teach only at the all-black Dunbar School-- remembers how important Mount Calvary was when she was growing up in the 1930s. Her mother was very active in the church, and she has continued that tradition, once serving as a choir leader and now acting as Mount Calvary's historian.

"It provided not only religious services and organizational leadership for the African-American community," Jolivet says of her church, "but also offered opportunities for entertainment. There were many activities for children and young people, like ice cream socials where cake, ice cream and lemonade were served."

The church also played a key role in keeping its members informed on social issues while encouraging them to participate in the community to the greatest extent possible under the circumstances.

"Because of segregation, the church was the central organization for information as well as spiritual growth," Jolivet says of that time. "Members would look at social issues and were encouraged to vote."

Despite that, segregation was prevalent in Tucson. "African-Americans couldn't be totally active because we weren't in the mainstream of the community," Jolivet remembers. "We couldn't go to hotels in town, or to the main restaurants, and Dunbar School was segregated."

By 1946, continuing discrimination had led to a growing number of local African-American churches. A report prepared that year entitled "A Study of the Negroes of Tucson, Arizona," found there were 10 congregations, with three more planned.

Total membership in these churches by that time was 1,700, or more than 60 percent of the city's black population. As the study dryly notes: "We believe this is a better showing than the American whites can make."

Jolivet reinforces this view of the overall role of religious institutions. "The church is very important in the African-American community," she stresses.

Commenting on racial segregation in local churches the year before Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier, the 1946 Tucson report also states: "A few instances are on record of Negroes who indicated a desire to church officials to join (white) congregations, but in each case such desire was 'tactfully' discouraged. And so, at least outward brotherly relations were not established."

In 1956, Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church relocated to a new and larger building on east Lester Street. Around that same time, Jolivet says, was when religious segregation in Tucson began to change. The civil rights movement of that era led to its decline.

Mount Calvary currently has about 500 members. There are also several other black congregations from Tucson's earlier days continuing to hold services. The A.M.E. church is still downtown near the barrio, while on west Fourth Street is Phillip's Chapel C.M.E., and the Greater Mount Olive Church of God in Christ is on east Lee Street.

Jolivet indicates Mount Calvary's members now come from all across Tucson, not just from the immediate vicinity as they once did. Five years ago, the church celebrated its centennial and proudly indicates that today it "stands as the oldest African-American church in the state of Arizona."

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