First black student at Loretto Academy remembers angry parents, best friend
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - Walking beside her step-father, Carmen Forte climbed the steps to the entrance of Loretto Academy on the first day of school in September 1947. Quiet and tall with dark, dreamy eyes, she was eager to meet her new classmates at her new school.
In 1947, Carmen Forte became the first African-American student enrolled at Loretto Academy. Bishop Edwin V. O'Hara initiated the integration of Catholic schools in Kansas City, seven years before Brown vs. Topeka.
"It was a real eye-opener," Carmen Forte Carter recalled 57 years later.
Waiting beside the front door was a small group of angry parents. Carter was African-American, the first "Negro" student enrolled in a formerly all-white school, public or private, in Kansas City.
The integration of Loretto Academy, seven years before the landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision, created an uproar among some academy parents and alumnae.
Since 1938, when a young African-American man challenged admission rules at the University of Missouri-Columbia law school, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights groups had been pushing for integrated schools. The "Jim Crow" laws spawned by the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision allowing "separate but equal" schools for blacks, created de facto segregation laws in schools across the country. Kansas City was no exception.
Fifteen-year-old Carmen Forte had graduated from St. Joseph's Catholic School and had attended St. Monica High School, a non-accredited high school for black students, taught by Franciscan nuns. She was on the honor roll and involved in music and dance classes. Her mother and stepfather, local attorney Lewis Clymer, wanted Carmen to graduate from an accredited high school so that she could go on to college.
During her sophomore year, one of her teachers had escorted Carter and several other St. Monica students to a youth meeting at Loretto. Carter had been enthralled by the layout of the building. "It seemed like a castle. I went home that night and told Mama and Lewis that I wished I could go to Loretto," she remembered.
Clymer wrote Bishop Edwin V. O'Hara of the Diocese of Kansas City requesting an appointment to discuss "the matter of educational opportunities for Negro Catholics in accredited Catholic schools here in Kansas City, Missouri."
Vicar General Msgr. Francis E. Hagedorn met with the Clymers in May 1947, and promised to take their request to Bishop O'Hara.
Bishop O'Hara was known for his commitment to racial equality through his active membership in organizations such as his Catholic Action, the NAACP and Kansas City's Urban League. Bishop O'Hara set to work to get the girl admitted to Loretto.
On July 27, 1947, Sister Marie Lourde Conboy, then-principal of Loretto, wrote to Mother Edwarda Ashe, superior of the Loretto motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky.
"Just before dinner today Msgr. Hagedorn came at the suggestion of the Bishop to make a request. It was a new and certainly a surprising one in one way and in another it was an inevitable one. A Catholic colored girl wants to come here to school . I told him I would not be able to give him an answer at once as there were many things to consider since that was the first request we had received."
Mother Ashe replied on July 31. "After talking over . the Bishop's request about accepting the colored student, we all agreed that if the Bishop thinks we should accept her we cannot refuse. . We are of the opinion that colored students should not be denied admittance to Catholic schools but feel that the other students should be prepared for this. . On account of my previous experience, you know I am the last one in the world who would tell you not to take her." (In 1938, Mother Edwarda Ashe approved the enrollment of the first black student to attend Webster College, a Loretto-run college in St. Louis.)
On Aug. 11, 1947, Bishop O'Hara wrote the Clymers: "It is my understanding that Msgr. Hagedorn spoke to the Sisters at Loretto Academy about your daughter enrolling there, Loretto Academy and all our high schools are in accord in regard to the admission of all Catholic children who are educationally qualified."
He told the Sisters of Loretto that "he would back us in whatever we did," Sister Conboy wrote.
Norman Gordon was the diocesan attorney and a close friend of Bishop O'Hara. His son, Tom Gordon, president of Avila University, remembered his father talking about the integration of Loretto.
"Dad and the bishop were certain there would be some opposition, but how much they didn't know. I remember Dad telling me Bishop O'Hara accompanied Carmen Forte to Loretto Academy on her first day to show his personal commitment to this young lady."
In his biography of Bishop O'Hara, "Some Seed Fell on Good Ground," Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee also cited the story of Bishop O'Hara accompanying Carmen Forte to Loretto as a way of defining the bishop's sensitivity to civil rights.
Whether he did in fact drive the young African-American to Loretto is not officially recorded. Carmen Carter does not remember ever having met the bishop.
Archbishop Dolan said in a telephone interview, "It may have been an anecdote that was embellished in Norman Gordon's memory. Bishop O'Hara may have been present at Loretto that day, in the background, and Carmen doesn't remember him. She was 14 or 15 years old, and probably more than a little scared.
Whatever the actuality, the story does illustrate Bishop O'Hara's progressiveness and social awareness. O'Hara and Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis were two brave bishops." (St. Louis Catholic schools were also integrated in 1947 at the urging of Archbishop Ritter.)
Carter was not aware of the behind-the-scenes activity involved in her enrollment at Loretto, nor had she considered the racial situation. "All I knew was that my parents were getting an application so I could go to Loretto. A couple of weeks before school started, Lew told me, 'Your application has been accepted.'
"I was ready to be a part of my class. I loved the uniforms, the tan blouse with the Loretto monogram on the pocket, and the dark skirt. They had to be spic-and-span clean and pressed. I was looking forward to music and dancing lessons and sports. Walking through that door was an experience I wasn't expecting. I guess my faith in God and in myself was stronger than I knew."
Sister of Loretto Mary Ann Cunningham was a sophomore at the Academy when Carter was enrolled. She recalled the upheaval that the admission of a "colored student" created among parents and alumnae.
"Some parents withdrew their daughters from Loretto," she said. "Others offered to pay to have the young African-American girl attend any other school except Loretto. Lawsuits were filed. Both the new principal, Sister Lillian Clare Reed, and faculty member Sister Jean Patrice Golden took phone calls night and day that were filled with real hate, some even obscene."
Bishop O'Hara's support of the Sisters of Loretto and Carmen Forte, and the solidarity expressed by Archbishop Ritter of St. Louis muted the protests.
A Kansas City Times article from September 1947 carried the announcement, "Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter said today that members of a St. Louis group protesting admittance of Negro children into Roman Catholic schools with white children would be excommunicated automatically from church if they persist in plans to bar the Negroes by civil action against the archbishop."
Sister Cunningham recalled, "There were a few students from Latin America and local Hispanic girls at Loretto. We had had Native American boarding school students as far back as the 1920s, so we girls didn't think anything about Carmen being black. We were unquestioning. We just didn't see color."
Carter had similar thoughts: "I had been taught by the Franciscan sisters at St. Monica that God loved us all equally. Sister Thomas Aquinas, the principal, told us that no matter what skin color we had, people could always tell when we were dirty."
Therese Stawowy, a former Sister of Loretto and a classmate of Sister Cunningham, remembered meeting Carter.
"I was so proud of Loretto that day," she said. "I was thrilled to meet her. She was spirited and seemed to immediately meld into classes and become a part of our school family. She was a true Loretto girl.
"There was not a lot of action or noise that first day. She just was there and became a member of her class. I was saddened that some parents felt it necessary to remove their daughters."
Twenty-five students were withdrawn from Loretto Academy by their parents. The principals at the diocesan high schools, Bishop Hogan, Cardinal Glennon and Bishop Lillis, had been ordered not to admit any transfer student from Loretto after school started. Four of the girls were admitted to St. Teresa's Academy, a private school.
Theresa Egelhoff, current development director of St. Teresa's, surmised that the students were admitted because the administration of St. Teresa's did not want to deny the girls a Catholic education because of their parents' decisions.
By 1949, the four diocesan high schools were accepting black students. By the early 1950s black students were accepted into the Catholic schools of Kansas City and St. Joseph as well as St. Louis.
Looking back at her two years at Loretto, Carter said she regretted "that some of my classmates didn't get a chance to know me. They didn't get a chance to know that Carmen Forte could have been the best friend they ever had. But Aggie Hauber knew. Agnes Hauber was my best friend."
Lewis Clymer drove his step-daughter to school the first week, but after that Carter took the streetcar to 39th and Troost. She would meet Agnes Hauber at the bus stop on 39th Street and the two girls would travel on to Loretto together by bus. They were both quiet girls who enjoyed music and dancing.
"Aggie got right up in my face and told me I wasn't going to be a wall flower. So what if the other girls wouldn't dance with me, she was going to. She said she was my friend, whether I liked it or not."
Carter lost track of Agnes Hauber after the two girls graduated from Loretto in 1949. Carter attended Fisk University in Nashville for a year, then married and had a son, Michael.
Lewis Clymer and Carter's mother, Mildred, had divorced, and Mildred married Andrew "Skip" Carter, the founder of Carter Broadcasting Company, which operates Kansas City's KPRS and "Hot 103 Jams" radio stations.
Carter completed her education at the Benedictine-run Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kan. For several years, she worked at the Carver and Brooklyn Centers as an outdoor activity counselor. She later worked as a bookkeeper for the Municipal Auditorium garage and the Broadway Bridge, formerly a toll bridge, in Kansas City for a few years, then moved to Florida in 1972.
She returned to Kansas City in 1999.
Carter Broadcasting is a family business: Carter's two sons work for the station. Michael runs the company, and David is an engineer. Carmen Carter enjoys her grandchildren, takes computer, creative writing and acting classes through Shepherd's Center and remains actively connected to the station.
Carter wished she had stayed in touch with Agnes Hauber. When she tried to track her down a few months ago, she was told Aggie had passed away two years ago.
She was happy to find that Aggie Hauber was indeed alive. She lives in Auburn Neb., with her husband, Jim Jones, and daughter Ann. Carter plans to contact Jones and get reacquainted.
Carter wished more of her classmates would have gotten to know her better. "If people would only open their eyes and really get to know people of other races! Every race on earth has the same God-given gifts. Some people may be more intelligent or talented, but that's the individual not the race," she said.