Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Daniel Feller

Committee Members

Ernest Freeberg, Luke Harlow, Thomas Haddox


In 1905, Catholic Bishop Thomas Sebastian Byrne of Nashville, Tennessee announced that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament would open an academy and industrial school for black girls in a recently purchased mansion formerly inhabited by wealthy white Nashville banker Samuel J. Keith. Keith and hundreds of white Nashvillians protested the move, but Bishop Byrne and his collaborators refused to give up their plan and established Immaculate Mother Academy. Many black Nashvillians supported the new school, seeing Byrne’s efforts as a challenge to racial prejudice. This study tells the story of the establishment of the first stable black Catholic institutions in Nashville and their reception by white and black Nashvillians. The history of Immaculate Mother Academy shows the complex interconnection of race, religion, segregation, education, and urbanization in Nashville in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The school’s establishment was one step towards remedying the double bind in which black Catholics found themselves—required as Catholics by the Catholic bishops to educate their children in Catholic schools, they found the doors of most Catholic schools closed to black students. The school’s founding took place at a time of serious discussion in Nashville and throughout the U.S. of models of black education and dispute as to whether black students should be denied avenues to higher education. It likewise took place at a time of rapid demographic change in the city of Nashville, as the city center was changed by the expansion of railroads, industry, and the advent of electric streetcars while segregation became more pronounced. This study demonstrates that while anti-black prejudice trumped anti-Catholicism as a motivating factor for white Nashvillians such as Keith, Catholic efforts in the face of such prejudice served as an invitation to black leaders to consider the merits of the Catholic position, and to see Catholics as allies in challenging racial prejudice. The school once successfully established was painted by some white Nashvillians as doing good service in the training of future servants, but by many black Nashvillians as offering black students an opportunity for academic learning and musical education as well as industrial training.

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