While it’s well-known by now that Denver can boast of at least one Black Catholic (uncanonized) saint, what many don’t know is that it can also boast of a Black Catholic martyr.
Behold, Sergeant Walter V. Springs.
The eagle eyes of EWTN’s Kevin J. Jones recently spotted a local news story from last month covering Springs’ alma mater’s re-establishment of a scholarship in his honor. His repost on Twitter noted that Springs himself was Catholic.
Regis University, the school in question, had originally been spurred to action by one Don Christopher, a classmate of Springs’ who knew of his “great sacrifices” and in 1952 sent $50 (equivalent to a little over $500 today) to establish a memorial fund.
Springs had never actually seen combat in the war, but he saw plenty stateside, facing unrelenting racism after enlisting in the service partway through his university years and being shipped off to the Jim Crow South for training.
His comparatively peaceful Western US upbringing had involved combat as well, though in sport for the boxing and football teams at Regis in the early 1940s. While at the university, he—like many African Americans of his era—converted to Catholicism and became a notable spiritual force on campus.
His contagious holiness didn’t spare him from the wrath of the day, however, and he would return to Denver from basic training grieved by the open White bigotry present in Anniston, Alabama.
Despite the best efforts of his loved ones to encourage him and keep him safe, and his own wish to show via the military that Black Americans were willing and able to handle full combat and full equality, Springs never made it to active duty overseas.
He was gunned down on December 17th, 1942 in Bastrop County, Texas, by a White military policeman at a Black diner—mere minutes from his assignment at Camp Swift.
Springs’ story was recounted in the Regis University Magazine last Fall, and even then the circumstances surrounding his murder were still unclear. Springs was shot in the back and his killer accused him of having attacked him with a knife, but the officer was charged with manslaughter.
At the time of the magazine issue’s publishing, no one seemed to know whether the officer ever actually faced a trial. The university hoped to uncover more information in time for a new course at the university this past Spring on Black military service, entitled “Stories from Wartime: Histories of African American Citizenship and Service”.
The results of that research were revealed during the course on April 29th, but the details were not made public and the local news story in May didn’t mention it—focusing instead on the larger Springs’ story and the scholarship formed in his memory.
After the original donation by Mr. Christopher, and with the help of other classmates of Springs’ (and the news media), the fund won the support of a number of celebrities during the 1950s, including the Catholic-baptized Louis Armstrong.
Over time, the scholarship ran out of funds and itself died, but a recent partnership between Regis and the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy—a school co-led by Denver NBA legend Chauncey Billups and founded by former Regis coach Lonnie Porter—led to its re-establishment.
(Billups joined the Regis board of trustees in 2018 and the new Walter V. Springs Memorial Endowed Scholarship will be awarded to students from his academy specifically.)
Also new to Regis, and in line with recent initiatives at Jesuit and other Catholic universities around the country, is the President’s Council on Race and Social Justice, meant to help the school increase equity and inclusion. (This initiative was also revealed in the Fall issue of the school magazine.)
Thus, it seems that the story of Springs—and the progressive work of the only Jesuit university among the Rockies—might soon be getting more attention than ever.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).