As South Side church turned black, one white congregant stayed in pews

The story of Chatham’s racial change as seen through the eyes of a longtime churchgoer.

May 31, 2013

On a recent Sunday morning, the choir at Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church belts out “Jesus is the Rock.” The brick church at the corner of 81st Street and Calumet Avenue is a largely African-American congregation made up mostly of senior citizens.

One of its members, Marie Moe, has been around longer than most.

“I’m 85 years old. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida in an all-white home, in all-white neighborhood in an all-white church, in all white schools in the segregated South,” Moe recalled.

In her Southern home, the family’s black maid entered through the backdoor. Her cast off textbooks ended up in the under-resourced black schools. Today, she’s the only white member of Crerar from a bygone era.

Sixty years ago when she first joined, the community and church were all white. The story of Crerar is a story of changing neighborhoods, and attitudes toward race that changed even more— and Marie Moe saw it all from the pews at Crerar.

Lately, though, a bad hip and a recent stroke have kept her from attending church.

Her silver hair styled in a pixie cut, Moe lives among stacks of books and photo albums in her third-floor Hyde Park apartment. She first moved to Chicago in 1949 to attend Northwestern University. A few years later a friend brought her to Crerar.

“One choir rehearsal night in September 1953, I walked over to the church and said ‘may I sing with you?’” Moe remembers. “And the director said ‘what do you sing?’ And I said ‘soprano.’ He said ‘go sit over there.’”

Moe joined the soprano section, and the church.

In the late 1940s, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive housing covenants. African Americans who had been confined to the Black Belt of Chicago could start moving into white neighborhoods like Chatham. Eventually some black families starting showing up at the all-white Crerar to worship.

“It was very gradual at first,” Moe says.

Back then Rev. Warren Studer, who was white, actively recruited blacks. A committed integrationist, Studer wanted to avoid what happened the last time blacks moved near the church.

In 1928, Crerar was located on 57th and Prairie, then a white neighborhood. When the “population began to change” - a nice way of saying Negroes were moving in - the church decided to simply disband.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and Studer wasn’t going to let that happen again.

“Some of the members in the church felt that Mr. Studer was spending too much time trying to bring black people into the church and he was ignoring them,” Moe said. “He really was excellent at making the new people feel welcome in the church. Some white people felt he was neglecting them for them.”

Outside, neighborhood tensions were even higher. Chatham experienced racially-motivated vandalism. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who lived in the community, had her windows shot out.

Inside Crerar, Moe remembers asking her new friends questions.

“I wonder what it feels like to be black,” Moe said. A friend looked at her and replied “ ‘Moe, there’s hope for you yet.’ If I said something wrong in Bible class, someone would say, ‘you don’t understand.’”

And Moe said others would chime in: “‘Of course she doesn’t understand, she’s never had the experiences we’ve had.’”

But those awkward moments never pushed Moe away.

“People have always been very good with me. Very patient with me and treat me like I’m one of their own.” she said. “Just listening to what people were subjected to. I hadn’t had to go through any of the experiences black people had to go through. It was all new.”

One of the first blacks to move to Chatham in the 1950s was Alscenia Hodo. A retired school teacher, she’s the same age as Moe and still attends Crerar. After service on a spring Sunday, Hodo and other congregants gathered for fellowship in the basement named for Rev. Studer, Crerar’s integrationist pastor.

“There might have been racial tension in the church, but I didn’t feel it really,” Hodo said.

By 1967 the church was virtually all black and had its first black pastor. Whites had emptied out of Chatham, mirroring white flight in neighborhoods across the country. Hodo said every week a white family moved out. Crerar was more welcoming, but she remembers whites leaving there, too.

Despite the changes over the years, one thing at Crerar remained constant: come Sunday morning, Marie Moe was almost always there.

“Not only did she stay, she’s been very active. And she has contributed to the community,” Hodo said. “I think sometimes she has to be reminded that she’s not black. Cause she thinks that she knows a lot of things and she doesn’t but she’s always been wonderful being here.”

Today middle class Chatham, with its Cape Cod, ranch and bungalow homes, is still close to 100 percent black.

This is one reason why I always noticed Moe. I’ve been a member of Crerar since I was about 10 years old. Growing up in Chatham in the 1980s, I was keenly aware of my segregated surroundings.

I always wondered why that white woman was still a member. Not in a negative way but there just weren’t any other white members. And so it’s taken me all this time—now that I’m a reporter—to ask her if she truly felt accepted.

“I always felt accepted. There was always a line in a way that I was not supposed to cross,” Moe said. “I remember once when I was nominated for an office, they said, no this is a black church now we should have a black person in that office. I was elected to it anyway,” Moe recalled.

“Just little things like that would come up once in awhile, but by and large I haven’t had any negative experiences. That was home and I was going to stay there. Nobody ever asked me to leave.”

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side bureau reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.