By Dr. James E. Sulton Jr.
Orangeburg, SC: The City of Orangeburg, S.C. has a population of about 13,250. Though comparatively small, the city mirrors the American south in microcosm. Its history reveals a great deal about African American lives from the Reconstruction Era until the present day.
Of particular interest are intense struggles in the areas of religion and education. The way the Civil Rights Movement unfolded in Orangeburg shows that efforts to foment desegregation were not without strife.
The freedom movement in Orangeburg grew especially intense during the mid-twentieth century. The civil rights struggle in this small town revealed much about African American history and the Catholic church.
Catholicism first came to Orangeburg during the 1930’s with the arrival of the Redemptorists, a missionary order of priests from the northeast. In the beginning, the Redemptorist ministry encompassed white citizens to an almost exclusive extent. Given the presence of two African American higher education institutions in town, the religious ministry began to include a larger swath of the Black community. Eventually, with respect to elementary and secondary education in Orangeburg, religion and education became intertwined.
With support from the Bishop of Charleston, the Redemptorists built another church in Orangeburg and named it Christ the King. The cornerstone was laid in 1940 and the work was nearly done when arsonists burned the church.
Showing great resilience, the community rehabilitated the building. The church opened its doors in 1942.
The next year brought the arrival of the Oblate Sisters of Providence from Baltimore, Maryland. The Oblate Sisters are the oldest order of African American Catholic nuns in the United States. They have been providing education and service now for 192 years. The sisters began to teach in Christ the King School.
During the ensuing decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of African American students were able to obtain a first-class primary school education at Christ the King. Not all students were Catholic, but they were African American. Tuition was five dollars a month and for families, the fourth child went to school without charge.
Throughout the course of decades, scores of Christ the King graduates progressed into secondary and postsecondary education institutions throughout the country. Many went on to build outstanding professional and advanced academic careers. None of them forgot that they got their start at Christ the King in Orangeburg.
The decade of the 1960’s brought about the gradual demise of Christ the King Church and School. The financial fortunes of the Catholic church began to wane. The costs of running two churches and a school became unsustainable. Segregation became indefensible in a way that crystallized a decision point for the diocese in the middle of the decade.
The bishop concluded that it was not feasible any more to have two churches – one named Holy Trinity serving whites and another called Christ the King serving Blacks – in the same place. So, Catholics built a new church in another part of town, closed Christ the King Church and School, and allowed the name to begin fading away.
Although that may have been its projected forecast, such an outcome was unacceptable to alumni, friends, and former congregants of Christ the King. This year on Juneteenth, many of them gathered from across the country at the former sites on the grounds of where the school and the church once thrived to memorialize those two sacred institutions.
About 40 people were expected to attend. However, more than 100 former Christ the King students and friends returned to Orangeburg for the unveiling of two South Carolina historical markers at the places where they used to go to school and pray. One marker is placed where the church stood; the other where the school was located.
The Redemptorist priests, the Oblate Sisters and the Diocese of Charleston all took part in ceremonies dedicated to the memory of a bygone era. During the ceremony, Fr. Michael Koncik, CSSR; Sr. Magdala Marie Gilbert, OSP; and Msgr. D. Anthony Druze, Vicar General addressed the audience.
Sr. Magdala Marie Gilbert, OSP appeared via Zoom. Her former students, now all over age 60, were absolutely delighted to see her.
The collective commitment of everyone on hand was palpable. People who literally had not seen one another for decades convened to celebrate the history they hold so dear. A good time was had by all and rejuvenation ensued for everyone who happened to be there.