From 1951, its first year as a Catholic high school in New Orleans, through the mid-1960s, St. Augustine excelled in three major varsity sports: football, basketball and track and field.
But the school, opened under the administration of New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel, was relegated to competing in the Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic and Literary Organization during the closing era of segregation.
Its principal, Josephite Father Robert Grant, wanted more for his athletes. He wanted them to compete against the city’s other Catholic schools, who were members of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.
His first attempt came in 1962 when Father Grant wrote to the principals of the five schools – Jesuit, St. Aloysius, Holy Cross, De La Salle and Redemptorist – asking them to compete against St. Aug on an interscholastic sports level.
He thought that would be possible because the Archdiocese of New Orleans had already desegregated its elementary schools.
According to the Book, “Between Law and Hope,” (2003) written by Josephite Father Matthew J. O’Rourke, the school’s first principal, none accepted the invitation.
But there was one reply, by De La Salle principal, Christian Brother Cassian. It was painfully blunt: “Father, personally, I am not one to rush into situations which may not be to my advantage and to those associated with me.
“For years, I have refused to play certain high school teams on the basis that there was nothing to gain by such competition. This is how I feel about your request to play De La Salle. Time may change my attitude.”
Writing for the Clarion Herald, Clarence Jupiter, who would go on to become a top administrator at Xavier University, championed the cause by asking why St. Augustine and Xavier Prep, which competed in major boys’ sports, were not allowed to play their white Catholic counterparts?
“Several Catholic high schools in New Orleans field triple-A (Class 3A) teams in major sports. These institutions develop All-Americans and future pros and perform exceptionally well. Yet the fans never, never see two of these schools compete against the other five.
“Their outstanding athletes, who also become All-Americans and future pros, are not considered when All-Catholic selections are made. (That’s because) St. Augustine and Xavier Prep are predominantly Negro.”
St. Augustine defeated Xavier Prep, 18-9, for the 1963 LIALO football title.
On the surface, little was happening to change the situation, but Father Grant was tirelessly working behind the scenes.
In June 1964, he notified Archbishop John Cody that he would seek admittance to the LHSAA, “as preliminary to establishing athletic relations with the other Catholic high schools in the archdiocese.” He also notified those schools of his plan, asking them to include St. Aug on their basketball, baseball and track and field schedules for the 1964-65 school year.
“This is in keeping with the program of integration begun in the parochial school athletic program on the elementary level.”
Father Grant had no delusions that LHSAA Commissioner T.H. “Muddy” Waters would greet his request with open arms. And he was right.
Jesuit principal Father C.J. Stallworth, who had served on the LHSAA executive committee for seven years, said he would do what he could to assist St. Augustine, but added it would be helpful to him to have Sister Madalena of Xavier Prep also apply for admission to bolster his request.
Once again, the Clarion Herald trumpeted St. Augustine’s cause.
“Five other Catholic schools field (Class 3)A teams. Now three new institutions are expected to join the loop – Archbishop Rummel, Archbishop Shaw and Cor Jesu,” Jupiter opined in a Jan. 7, 1965 column. He asked what would happen to St. Aug and Xavier Prep?
“The unfairness of this situation goes beyond the racial business. The ridiculous dual system of crowning champions, the dubious honors and selection of who is the best, the fact that athletes and fans never get to know because the top teams and outstanding performers never compete against each other. All this underscores the need for a unified program.”
Father Grant was getting resistance from other Catholic schools, whose coaches set the athletic schedules. The Catholic League coaches ignored the two LIALO schools when they set the schedules for 1964-65.
The CYO tournament and Knights of Columbus track meet also kept their events segregated.
At the January 1965 annual meeting, the LHSAA denied St. Augustine’s membership request, but amended its constitution to allow LHSAA and LIALO schools to compete against each other.
A year later, Rummel, Shaw and Cor Jesu were admitted by a two-thirds vote of LHSAA principals; St. Aug was not. Although the local Catholic school principals voted to admit the school into their district by a 5-3 count, the vote of LHSAA principals numbered 11 yeas, 185 nays. The rest is history.
St. Augustine gained entry through a federal court suit in 1966, the CYO allowed St. Augustine and Xavier to compete in its tournament, and the Knights of Columbus ceased running its annual track and field meet.
St. Augustine has won state championships in football, basketball and track over the years. Xavier Prep became an all-girls school a few years after joining the LHSAA.
The LIALO became a defunct organization in 1969. Its members joined the LHSAA.
Almost every high school in the LHSAA has a mixed enrollment. Three African-American principals sit on the current executive committee.
And De La Salle, whose principal was reluctant to schedule an athletic event with an African-American school, will meet St. Augustine on Sept. 8 in the first prep football game ever at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, on this, the 50th anniversary of Father Grant’s trials and triumph.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.