“The reality of segregation was known and practiced not only in the communities where Southern Presbyterians lived. It was known and practiced in Montreat. Segregated church services and Sunday school classes for 'Colored People' were a longtime feature of the Montreat Conference Center."
Segregation policies and practices were in place in various forms in Montreat from its inception until 1965, when segregation policies in Montreat were officially rescinded by the Board of the Mountain Retreat Association (MRA). Calls for and attempts to desegregate the campus began in the late 1930s, and some parts of Montreat were desegregated in 1950, with all policies lifted in 1965.
The MRA often employed Black individuals for various jobs around campus, and while they interacted with guests, these employees slept and ate in spaces that were inferior to their white counterparts. This employment was ultimately the "crack in Montreat's wall of segregation" that opened the door to representation by Black participants. [1: page 83] While practices of segregation ran deep among some of the participants, cultural changes and challenges to the status quo began to emerge, leading to a movement for institutional change.
This timeline below represents a summary of events leading to the end of formal segregation at Montreat. While these events do not mark the end of racial tensions in Montreat, they do document a significant disruption of unjust practices.
Participants in the Young People's Council, a youth group comprised of representatives of geographic synods, began to voice concern for the representation of all synodical organizations, including the all-Black Snedecor Memorial Synod, in the denominational young people's programs held at Montreat.
An opportunity presented itself in 1935 when Louie Logan, a member of the Snedecor Memorial Synod and a student at Stillman College, was hired as a Montreat summer worker. The council was allowed to invite Louie to leadership meetings in between his work schedule. Still, to the dismay of the other Council participants, he was not allowed to participate in recreation or attend the Young People's Leadership School, an annual structured event designed to mirror the church courts with youth representatives from all synods. Louie attended again in 1936, but the Council was confronted with concerns by Montreat authorities and subsequently chose to cancel some planned events rather than desegregate them.[1: page 83]
In 1941, Charles Tyler, a Black youth from the Snedecor Memorial Synod, attended the Young People's Council but stayed in segregated housing.[3: page 141]
The Youth Council, including Louie Logan and Charles Tyler, worked with the Montreat Program Committee to have integrated space for the 1945 Young People's Leadership School.[3: page 148] However, government restrictions around WW2 and polio kept youth events from happening in Montreat until 1948.
In 1949, after nearly a decade of requests from the Youth Council Leadership team, Black youth were allowed to attend the Youth Leadership School but not to integrate for eating, recreating, or socializing despite growing calls for complete desegregation by the Youth Council Leadership team.[3: page 141]
The "Non-Segregation Policy"
The PCUS Board of Education began pushing for more clarity about policies around Black participation in Montreat Programs. The Montreat Board of Directors created the "Policy for the Entertainment of Negros," stating that "provision shall be made for the entertainment on a non-segregated basis" for adult conferences in the Fellowship Hall and the cafeteria. Youth socialization was still prohibited at this time. Loosely dubbed the "non-segregation policy," this compromise effectively desegregated some parts of the campus while maintaining segregation in other parts. Black participants were housed in a separate facility, and whites could indicate if they wanted to be in the same living facility, and the same applied to dining facilities.[1: page 86]
This policy "drew a strong reaction from those who defended segregation, as well as those who attacked it."[2: page 135] While this policy opened the door for Black participants, other barriers, such as cost and the small number of Black Presbyterians, made attendance unlikely. At the end of 1950, only thirteen Black participants had registered for a Montreat program.[1: page 87]
For members of the young people's programs, this policy was a step backward from the progress made in the 1949 Leadership School. The 1950 Young People's Leadership Council met at Warren Wilson College to have integrated meetings.[1: page 85] Large-scale youth events did not return to Montreat until 1960. [3: page 141]
A Denominational Stance
In June, the PCUS General Assembly met at Montreat and recommended churches and other affiliated organizations end practices of segregation. The proposal, called "A Statement to Southern Christians," condemned segregation as theologically flawed.
Citing that the General Assembly was a request rather than a directive, the MRA Board appointed a committee to evaluate present policies before making further changes. By August of that year, the committee recommended continuing the current policies as they were "more liberal than other conference centers in the area."
This decision received criticism and support from congregations, and a committee was appointed to study the policy more completely.[1: page 87]
A Loosening of Policies
As congregations throughout the denomination continued to wrestle with their own church's segregation policies, more adult programs at Montreat had interracial aspects, and segregation practices slowly changed. However, race remained a source of tension.
In preparation for the 1958 Women's Conference, the Board of Women's Work requested a review of Montreat's desegregation policy by the General Assembly and invited Reverend James Robinson, a well-known pastor of an interracial congregation in New York City, as a speaker. They also arranged for Black delegates to attend, which prompted more discussion by the MRA Board of Directors.[1: page 87]
In 1959, the MRA Board reaffirmed the 1950 "Entertainment Policy." Although it made some tone changes, it continued to exclude youth participants from integrated programs.[1: page 88]
"The next year, the Board of Directors decided not to maintain any segregated conferences, which opened up the way for the Black young people to use Montreat's facilities legitimately."[1: page 88]
End of the "Entertainment Policy"
In February of 1965, the Board rescinded the existing "Entertainment Policy," the last remaining MRA segregation policy. A committee was formed to study segregation in boarding and rooming houses in the Montreat community.[5: page 60–62]
Later that year, the Montreat served as the substitute location for General Assembly after its planned location, Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, TN, refused to desegregate.[1: page 102]
Martin Luther King Jr. came to Montreat in August at the invitation of the PCUS and MRA to deliver an address to the Christian Action Conference.
Later, MRA communicated to all private property owners and operators of boarding houses in the Montreat community that they were to bring their policies into line with that of MRA regarding the "serving and care of all people, regardless of race."
- Alvis, Joel L. Jr. Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946 to 1983. Print. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, United States of America: University Alabama Press, 1994.
- Marshall, Mary-Ruth. “Handling Dynamite: Young People, Race, and Montreat.” American Presbyterians: The Journal of Presbyterian History 74, no. 2 (season-02 1996): 141–48.
- Presbyterian Church in the United States. Minutes of the Ninety-Fourth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States: May 27–June 1, 1954. Journal with Appendix, 1954.
- Davis, Calvin Grier, Th.M., Th.D., D.D. Montreat: A Retreat For Renewal 1947–1972. Print. Kingsport, Tennessee, United States of America, 1986.
- Other historical details drawn from summaries of Mountain Retreat Association (Montreat Conference Center) meeting minutes and administrative papers housed at the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Montreat, NC.