Missteps by an Episcopal Priest that Led to Segregation
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
It’s 1868 in Nebraska City. The Civil War is over and the town is now home to a community of African Americans recently freed from Southern slavery. Few know how to read. A White Episcopal priest and a Black Protestant preacher establish St. Augustine’s, a place of both worship and education for local Black residents. The goal is to advance equality, but instead the project establishes racial segregation in local schools. Historian Jo Wetherilt Behrens tells the story in “The Troubled Road to Equality for African Americans in Nebraska City, Nebraska: Missteps by an Episcopal Priest that led to Segregation, 1868 – 1893,” in Nebraska History Magazine’s Summer 2021 issue.
Reverend William Henry Wilson and Reverend Robert W. Oliver both arrived in Nebraska City around 1868. Wilson had been born into slavery in Viriginia, and later worked as a barber and unordained preacher to local African American Methodists. Oliver was an ex-British Army officer who served as Dean of the Divinity Department at the Episcopal Church’s college in Nebraska City. While living in Pennsylvania before the Civil War, Oliver had been an abolitionist and was active in the Underground Railroad.
In Nebraska City, Oliver organized a day school for the Black community. It held classes from the late 1860s to the early 1870s. Students were taught from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer because he “thought it better to educate them up to the standard of the church, than to bring the church down to theirs.”
The Nebraska City School Board addressed the inadequacies of the education the day school was providing. The board opened a formal teaching position and the school raised money for new materials.
In the summer of 1870, the chapel of St. Augustine’s was erected under the direction of Preacher Wilson and the support of Reverend Oliver as a separate space for African Americans to practice their religious freedoms. Years afterward it was converted to serve as both a chapel and schoolhouse for the Black community.
In 1879, the school board deliberated whether to keep St. Augustine’s doors open. If they closed the school, Black students would be integrated into existing public schools. If the separation of facilities remained, a new building would need to be constructed, but the board wondered whether the local African American population was large enough to “warrant the expense.”
Reverend Oliver, both an abolitionist and a segregationist, did not believe integrating schools was a good decision. His grandson years later noted: “He wanted the negro to have every advantage that freedom affords …” but also believed that separate schools with Black teachers was best.
Oliver volunteered to keep the school open without city funding, but the school board decided to integrate.
That fall, Black students were hesitant to enroll in school out of fear of animosity from their White peers, but they gradually returned.
(Above:"St. Augustine Episcopal Church, an African American church in Nebraska City, illustration from The Guardian (published by the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska), May 1, 1874.")
The following summer Oliver vowed to end school integration. He petitioned the school board to provide a separate school for Black students. He offered for St. Augustine’s to be again “at the disposal of the school board free of all demands.”
A rumor circulated that the board was willing to dedicate a single classroom for solely Black students, but Oliver refused. He wanted Black students to have the same academic experiences as the White students, but separately and without fear of being taunted.
Nebraska City schools remained integrated for another three years.
During this time, the collaboration between the Episcopal church and the Black community was altered. Behrens suggests that the “growing tension over integration may have played a role in Rev. William Henry Wilson’s decision to leave Nebraska in November 1877.” The function of the St. Augustine building shifted from education to serving and supporting impoverished African Americans.
During the summer of 1882—the same year a Black student was valedictorian of the public school graduating class—the segregation issue reemerged. Black parents were divided in their opinions. Some opposed segregation and believed it resulted in an inadequate education; others strongly believed the opposite. Either way, Black parents wanted the same security, privileges and rights for their children as provided in the existing public schools.
Ultimately, the school board’s main concern was economics.
Oliver, persistent that “separation” could mean “equality,” approached the board with the same offers as before. This time they accepted.
St. Augustine was used as a separate school for another decade of segregated schools. During that period, the building became severely dilapidated. “Forcing Black children to learn in a decrepit building was its own kind of racism,” Behrens writes.
Finally in 1893, the school board closed St. Augustine, which by then had only 12 students attending.
Long gone, the St. Augustine school remains a cautionary tale. Robert W. Oliver’s efforts provided some service to the Black community, but they were ultimately missteps. He acknowledged the need for education, but failed in recognizing how to achieve equality. In an academic setting, equality could not be taught in separation but had to be learned side-by-side.
(Left: "Rev. Dr. [Robert] William Oliver came to Nebraska City in 1868 to serve as head of the Divinity Department at Nebraska College.")
The entire article can be found in the Summer 2021 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.
Segregation, Nebraska City