At a black church in a black community, Helen Looby stands out as a white woman with whitish hair.
Long after others died or moved away, Looby remains the only white member of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Miami—a reminder of a significant but seemingly forgotten aspect of South Florida’s racial integration. She was there in the pews 40 years ago when New Covenant (motto: “A church for all people”) was formed as an interracial congregation in Allapattah, a neighborhood undergoing a white-to-black overhaul in the 1960s.
“I feel very much like I belong to that crowd,” said Looby, a retired elementary school teacher who grew up in the Northwest section of Miami and now lives in Biscayne Park. At church recently, she said, a friend gave her a hug and said, referring to their color difference, “We love you anyway.”
New Covenant Presbyterian Church, at 4300 NW 12th Ave., was built on that kind of racial harmony. It wasn’t the first Miami church to desegregate—a Unitarian sect achieved that distinction in the 1940s, said University of Miami history professor Gregory Bush—but New Covenant is believed to have been the first Southern congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to break racial barriers.
What’s more, whereas most white churches integrated somewhat reluctantly, slowing absorbing their black neighbors, New Covenant was the first Miami church to be conceived “with the definite purpose of integration,” The Miami Herald wrote in 1965 in touting the church’s launch.
“That’s why New Covenant is so interesting,” said Paul George, a history professor at Miami Dade College. “Most [white churches] sold, leased, locked their doors, held on or remained white. But for this [immediate integration] to happen, it’s so unusual.”
The church quickly swelled, boasting some 300 worshipers at its peak, Dunn said. Over time, what began as a multicolored mix—including a few Hispanics—remained largely integrated and harmonious, despite the McDuffie race riots and continued white flight—at least until nearly all white members had died or moved away by the 1990s.
“It was fully interracial—in the choir and in the organization,” said the Rev. Dr. Irvin Elligan, the church’s pastor from 1970 to 1985. “There were [white] people who were invited to black homes for dinner and vice versa.”
Now, those idyllic scenes live only in the memories of New Covenant’s pioneers. The church has changed. It’s nearly all black, and attendance has fallen to 50, maybe 100 on a good Sunday, making the church too small to support its own pastor.
Yet stalwarts like Looby, Thomas, Dunn and Powell remain and carry with them the quiet assurance of having played a part in the story of South Florida’s racial integration.
“I feel good about it,” Thomas said, “and I think that over the many years, we did some really great things as a congregation.
“We just like to think that we did it.”