Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Rev. HENRY F. TEVLIN
Champion of First Integrated School in South Carolina
The Reverend Henry F. Tevlin, C.O., played a key, behind-the-scenes role in furthering the civil rights movement in Rock Hill from the late 1940s until the early 1970s.
A member of Rock Hill’s Oratorian community of Catholic priests and lay brothers, Father Henry was dedicated to helping the African American community in Rock Hill and York County. A native of the Bronx, he was named assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the predominantly black Crawford Road community in 1948. After the pastor, Father Ed Wahl, joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain during the Korean conflict, he assumed the role of pastor, a position he would hold until 1971.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling on May 17, 1954, Father Henry was instrumental in enrolling five black children from St. Mary’s in the previously all-white school operated by St. Anne Catholic Church, making it the first desegregated school, private or public, in South Carolina history.
In 1954, Father Henry also became a founding member of the Rock Hill Council on Human Relations, formed by city leaders to prepare Rock Hill for anticipated racial discord. In 1957, he was involved with and raised money for the Committee for Promotion of Civil Rights. That group organized a boycott of the local bus system after a young black woman, Addelene Austin, got off a city bus when the driver ordered her to stand at the back rather than share a seat offered to her by a white woman. In 1961, following the sentencing of nine Friendship College students, Father Henry accompanied the parents of the Friendship 9 on a protest march to the York County prison farm.
In leading the desegregation of St. Anne School, Father Henry had to overcome objections from other Catholic clerics and laity and even some leaders in the black community. According to Friendship 9 member David Williamson, it was only because of the trust and affection in which he was held that parents agreed to send their children to the white parish school. Father Henry drove the children to school in a van each day, being careful to vary his route for fear of attack from opponents of school desegregation.
Along with fellow Oratorians, Father Henry lovingly ministered to the youth of Crawford Road, Flint Hill and other nearby black neighborhoods, engaging them in sports, scouting, dances, and other activities that they were otherwise excluded from during that era. At a time when Catholics represented fewer than 1% of South Carolinians and blacks comprised fewer than 3% of Catholics nationwide, Father Henry successfully solicited money from across the country to fund programs at St. Mary’s Church. He was also mentor and inspiration for another young Oratorian, Brother David Boone, who himself would become a crusader for human rights for more than a half century.
Father Henry Tevlin never sought recognition for his efforts, but his legacy of tireless efforts on behalf of the African Americans of York County should not be forgotten.