Rev. Thomas Faulkner confronts the Vestry on Race (1954)


Our bulletin curries carries the announcement, “You are Welcome at St. George’s church  regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation or tradition.” However, that has not always been true. Afro-Americans were segregated to the South gallery after Reconstruction and were not welcomed even after that period, well into the “modern” period.

During 1954, just before the Supreme Court announced its decision of Brown vs. Board of Education case which stated “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”, Tom Faulkner was embroiled in his own civil rights issues with the Vestry.  Faulkner would eventually prevail and through his example, leadership and work turned the issue around toward acceptance of other races.  It provided foundation for our welcoming statement in the Bulletin and also “Growing into Christ + Reaching out in Love.” Charles Sydnor did something similar for sexual orientation years later.

Faulkner growing up in the south had felt the contradictions of race at an early when he realized his grandfather on his mother’s side had made his wealth on the “backs of numerous slaves.” His immediate family employed a black maid at a low wage. Faulkner writes in his book Gospel for the 21st Century about an event that caused him to rethink his past.   “On the day before Thanksgiving I stepped in front of an African-American lady as I entered the local post office. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I realized what I was doing and stepped back and let her pass through the door first. She turned and thanked me. At that moment all of my unconscious conventional behavior of the past loomed up before me and I swore to myself that all persons entering the church of which I was rector should be treated exactly the same.”

Tom Faulkner came to St. George’s in 1946 but the confrontation over race occurred 8 years later.  Mary Faulkner, Tom’s wife in her unpublished memoirs faithfully records the events in 1954 that precipitated the confrontation:  “In 1954 at the April 2nd meeting of the Vestry, the Rector reported that the Fredericksburg Area Ministerial Association had invited the ministers of the local negro churches with their congregations to participate in their Holy Week and Good Friday services which were held annually in St. George’s Church.  Upon hearing this plan of the Ministerial Association, although integrated World Day of Prayer services had been held in St. George’s Church, a number of times in the past, some of the Vestrymen became quite agitated.”

Faulkner later apologized but said unsegregated services had been held for at least five years with no objection by St. George’s Vestry or other church officials. Faulkner was the chairman in organizing services and polled other churches about the idea of inviting the African American ministers and they were unanimous in support. The issue also arose about African American communicants. 

Faulkner admitted he had a Southern background on race but realized as Christian and minister he was determined to rise above it.  “This applies in general, but it especially applies to the fellowship of Christians as a congregation in God’s House, where I believe Christ, my God and Savior, opposes segregation in any form.”  Faulkner could not take a contrary position.  “ For me, therefore, the position that I take on segregation is in the last analysis a test of my faith in Jesus Christ and God Almighty.”

He proposed a questionnaire moving forward in the May 7, 1954 Vestry meeting:

  1. Shall we continue to have negro communicants in St. George’s Church? Out of 480 communicants at the time there had been only one African American communicant each year during the last two years
  2. Shall we permit unsegregated services in St. George’s?

Mary Faulkner continues on “After a lengthy discussion of the Rector’s understanding of segregation within the church according to his understanding of Christ and the New Testament, the Vestry decided that the rector’s understanding was inapplicable since Christ’s teachings referred to “religious segregation” and not racial segregation, This contention stood in spite of the Rector’s effort to show that their contention was contrary to what he had been taught.

“When the rector suggested that the congregation be polled in the question of negro communicants and integrated services, his suggestion was rejected.  The Vestry then by unanimous approval and consensus of those present told the Rector:

“1.  He is permitted to baptize negro children in St. George’s Church.

“2   He is not to present any negros for Confirmation.

“3.  He is not to receive any negro as a communicant of St. George’s Church.

“4.  Whenever he observes a negro Episcopalian in Fredericksburg he is to inform him or her that they are not wanted at St. George’s Church
“5.  He is not to permit any unsegregated services to be held in St. George’s nor is he to be allowed to conduct such services himself.

“In addition to these instructions to the Rector the Vestry agreed:

“1.  Negroes who attend St. George’s in ignorance of the fact that they are not wanted shall be seated as a part of the congregation and be allowed to take their communion.
“2.   Permission may be given to local groups such as the Red Cross to hold unsegregated meetings in the Sunday School Room on the first floor of the church building.

“The Vestry refused to permit the Rector to report to the congregation an explanation, similar to the one he had just given to the Vestry… The Vestry thought that this would prevent controversy in the congregation.”

Faulkner’s strategy was to “wait it out” and not confront the Vestry directly until he felt the timing was better. The issue rested until 1955 when he decided to place an insert into the bulletin. Other issues intervened in 1955 that diverted attention – the use of the current family room for Sunday School classes and planning for the eventual McGuire Hall. Also Vestry elections for 1955 resulted in what  Thomas Faulkner called  a “more open minded vestry, more sensitive to the issues I had attempted to present. As a result it was now safe to defy the previous Vestry’s directives.” 

He wrote an insert to the July 17, 1955 bulletin  that contained the following  “ For the sake of peace therefore most of them try to avoid an issue just as the rector of St. George’s has done by neglecting to minister to negro Episcopalians living in Fredericksburg until his services are requested.  However, when circumstances arising out of sincerity and good faith force him to make a decision he has no alternative except to be true to his convictions and ordination-vows.” 

The issue was resolved when he wrote a letter to the Vestry in September, 1955. “As you know, for over a year and a half there has been contention in our midst over the matter of segregation within the Church.  Such agitation has and still is disrupting and impeding the life and work of St. George’s Church.  As a consequence the time has come for us to settle this matter once and for all times.” He did so citing church legal precedent in the rector’s duties and responsibilities over who can be baptized and control over worship services

The lesson here is not to forget your convictions but be prudent on how you apply them.  Timing is everything and working from a position of strength and the building of consensus can lead to benefits down the road.