In my blog of March 12, 2014, I wrote about the papers of Leon M. Bazile, a collection I processed back in 1987. As I read through the papers a quarter century later, I was struck by a series of letters between Bazile and his future wife, Virginia Hamilton Bowcock. The two began their courtship in early 1917. At the time, Bazile was a twenty-six-year-old lawyer working in the attorney general’s office in Richmond. Bowcock, as her letters reveal, was smart, serious, and devoted to her church work. She taught Sunday school and at one point had considered becoming a missionary. Her devotion must have been attractive to Bazile, who also was deeply religious. Their courtship moved along quickly.
Leon visited Virginia at her home in Anniston, Alabama, and upon returning wrote of his love and his desire to be married. Virginia, however, saw things differently. It was clear that she was as much in love as he but could not consider marriage. She urged Leon to forget about her.
He was distraught. After beginning several letters between June 11 and June 23, Leon finally wrote: “I have delayed writing to you not because I have failed to think of you, for scarcely a conscious moment has passed me in which I did not think of you, but because I have been trying to think of some way in which to solve the one Problem, the correct solution of which means more to me than any question I have had to face in the past.”
Virginia wrote back: “[P]lease don’t go to so much trouble about solving the Problem, for Leon, I can never be more than a friend to you and it hurts me for you to take all that trouble just for me.”
The Problem? Leon Bazile was Roman Catholic. Virginia Bowcock was Baptist.
However, the couple was in love and tried to work through this one difference. At first, their correspondence revolved around doctrine. Virginia sent Leon books and articles explaining her faith. Leon minimized their differences, while simultaneous asserting his commitment to Catholicism. He addressed Virginia as a lawyer would a judge. “I am enclosing herewith a little brief on one of the questions we will have to discuss. I am afraid it is a little offensive although it is not intended that way.” Virginia rejected both his attitude and his argument. She urged Leon to speak to several ministers “and let them discuss ‘Our Problem’ with you. They can discuss it so much better than I can, and especially when I cannot talk with you.”
Over the summer and fall of 1917, the couple drew closer together, even though the problem remained. Leon visited Anniston, and he and Virginia became engaged. “I can hardly realize that I am about to become the husband of the sweetest and most desirable woman in the world,” he wrote shortly after his return. But latter in his missive it became clear that the problem was still present. “I have been thinking very seriously about your three questions. . . . I would not think of letting you go to church unaccompanied by me nor would I for one moment think of attempting to place any restrictions on the place or manner in which you choose to perform your religious duties. . . . The second question is giving me the most trouble. . . . Couldn’t you dear, agree that the family be Catholic?”
She could not. As Leon prepared to return to Anniston, he received a telegram: “Unless you can agree to second proposition useless to come.” That same day, Virginia wrote Leon, “[w]hen I marry you, I will have to give up some of my dearest friends who will never be the same to me (if I marry you.) You have no idea of what this problem means to me. This is one question that needs to be decided now and although it may mean giving [you up] I will have to do it, unless you agree to the Baptist faith being the faith of our family.”
He could not. “Can not you agree that the religion of the family be Catholic? I have tried in every way I could to see a way out of the matter but there seems no other way. Without this settled I could not get a priest to marry me and if I was not married by a priest I would be excommunicated. . . . Please try, Virginia, to agree on this.” Five days later, on November 5, he repeated his plaint. “The Bishop told your Uncle Alexander, who is on very good terms with the Bishop, that he would issue the necessary permit for our marriage provided I gave assurance that our children would be raised as Catholics and you promised not to interfere with their raising on this respect.”
Virginia, offended and angry, wrote, “I would give anything in my power to be able to agree with you, but neither you nor I nor your church nor mine has the right to decide the religion of our children. That is the question each much decide for himself and we are only responsible to God. . . . How could you take this privilege away?”
The correspondence does not reveal how the couple worked through the problem. Perhaps his impending induction into the army (and subsequent tour of duty in France during World War I) helped encourage them to reach an understanding. Whatever the circumstances, the papers of Leon Bazile include a list of eight promises he made Virginia. The list was addressed to her, written on the stationery of the attorney general’s office and dated January 23, 1918. Three days later Leon M. Bazile and Virginia Hamilton Bowcock were married in Richmond.
To Miss Virginia H. Bowcock,
My Dear Virginia:
I agree that I will never coerce you or in the slightest manner interfere with your practicing your religion in any way that you see fit.
I will not require you to be present at the baptism of the children.
I will go with you to your church except on second Sunday’s and on special occasions.
I agree with you that the clause relating to the education of the children as Catholics does not mean that they must be educated in catholic Schools, but only means that they must be taught their catechism.
While the children when old enough will have to go to the Catholic Church when I go they can [on] other occasions go to your church with you and I will not coerce them against their will as to religious matters.
I recognize the fact that every person who reaches the age of discretion has the right to make such choice as his conscience dictates.
While I cannot agree to surrender the care and control of our children, in the case of your death, I will respect your wishes as to who shall aid in their raising, provided the same does not necessitate their being kept away from my home.
The above promises are made on my part in consideration of your having agreed to marry me.
January 25, 1918
Leon M. Bazile
Forty years after his marriage to Virginia H. Bowcock, Judge Leon M. Bazile sentenced Richard and Mildred Loving each to a year in jail for violating the commonwealth’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. She was of African American and Native American descent. He was white. Nine years later, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down Virginia’s law.
On Thursday evening, June 19, at 6:30 p.m. the VHS will show the documentary, The Loving Story. The film documents the Loving’s marriage and the legal battle that followed. It is part of the Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle film series, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Bill Obrochta is the manager of educational services at the Virginia Historical Society.