African-American Catholics

Blessed Pope John Paul II was blunt in St. Louis in 1999 when he told Americans, “another great challenge (is) facing this. . .whole country: to put an end to every form of racism, a plague. . .one of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation.”

Racism still victimizes African-Americans. Note current socioeconomic data.

Ultimately, reviewing American racism exposes a classic case of yielding principles to convention, ignorance and self-interest, indicting all too many whites, Catholics included, but the indictment all the more vividly reveals great faith among African-American Catholics. It applies South or North. (Racism is no stranger in the North and Midwest. One of the last lynchings of an African-American occurred in 1930 in Marion, Ind., 30 miles from Our Sunday Visitor’s office. Read Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, by Thomas J. Sugrue [Random House, 2008]).

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, an African–American, wrote the standard Catholic African–American history, The History of Black Catholic in the United States (Crossroad, 1992). As the Caucasian–American priest and native Southerner who is writing this article, I admit to differences in perspective and experience, and I am convinced that most whites will need further study of, and actual encounter with, African–American culture to gain the true insight required to remedy racism.

Africans were among early Spanish explorers of North America, but for studying U.S. history, English Jamestown and French Louisiana are better examples.

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was England’s first surviving colony in North America. A Dutch ship landed there in 1619, conveying a group of Africans forcibly taken from their homes who were sold as slaves.


Calling the area Louisiana, French adventurers founded present-day Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1699, and today’s Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1714. Then, in 1718, they established Ville de La Nouvelle-Orleans, or modern-day New Orleans, where La Riviere de l’Immaculee Conception, the River of the Immaculate Conception, as they called it, or the Mississippi River, meets the Gulf. In 1803, the United States acquired Louisiana, and in 1812 Louisiana attained American statehood.

For 200 years slavery was a mighty social, economic and political institution in Louisiana. Racial segregation followed. Since Louisiana always has had a heavy Catholic flavor, its past is a good measure of Catholic response to slavery and racism.

As to the entire republic, the original American Constitution — along with many state constitutions and dozens of laws — provided for slavery. As time passed, white Americans came either to defend slavery or denounce it.

In late 1860 and early 1861, eleven Southern states, determined to hold onto slavery, formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began.

On Jan. 1, 1863, Union President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the seceding states except those in Tennessee and in parts of Louisiana and Virginia. He did not free slaves in states loyal to the Union, but the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, on Dec. 31, 1865, abolished slavery altogether. The Confederacy died on April 9, 1865, with Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

Subsequent Reconstruction failed to provide for recently freed slaves. Individual states passed laws segregating blacks from whites, and segregation restricted blacks in all manner of circumstances.

A New Orleans African–American Catholic, Homer Adolph Plessy, challenged a Louisiana segregation statute in a lawsuit, Plessy v. Ferguson. On May 1, 1896, voting seven to one, with one associate justice abstaining, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities, based on race, were constitutional. This decision carved legal segregation in granite. What was not law became social custom, and not just in the South.

Blacks and Jurisprudence

The Plessy decision was not the only time American jurisprudence did a disservice to African–Americans. Police routinely harrassed and mistreated blacks. White judges and all-white juries sent blacks to prisons or to death chambers, while whites who committed similar crimes received more lenient rebukes — if any. And woe to any black accused of abusing a white.

Time passed. Blacks willingly fought in America’s wars, but military segregation humiliated them and ignored their skills. Seeing the wrong in this, President Harry S. Truman, grandson of a Confederate soldier, desegregated the armed forces in 1946, coincidentally driving the first nail in the coffin of the Democratic Party’s “Solid South.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, on May 17, 1954, found racially segregated public schools unconstitutional, reversing Plessy’s basic premise. Finally, Brown killed segregation altogether, but its death rattle was loud.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The Civil Rights Movement came, led by an Atlanta-born charismatic African–American Baptist minister, educated in the East, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Churches took stands. Politicians fought pro and con. Ironically, in his term from 1963 to 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson, grandson of two Confederate soldiers, priding himself as a man “whose roots go deep into the soil of the South,” championed racial equality.

Where was the Catholic Church in this history?

Father Joel Panzer, of the Diocese of Lincoln, wrote The Popes and Slavery (Alba House, 1996). Between 1435 and 1890, Popes denounced slavery. Usually their statements were qualified or read with qualification.

The Second Vatican Council spoke firmly about human dignity. Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio set human equality in absolute theological terms. Of particular interest to this country, he named African–American priests to the episcopacy, and he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Liturgical reforms, enacted by Pope Paul VI, enabled worship more expressive of African and African–American spirituality. A newfound ecumenical friendliness allowed Catholics to join others in promoting racial justice.

What about American Church leadership in the face of racism, blacks in particular focus? What about white American Catholics at the grass roots?

The Church in America

A conclusion, hard to read, but bolstered by research, appeared on March 31, 1968, in Our Sunday Visitor. Now deceased Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, yet the premier American Church historian in a century, wrote: “Given a record of this kind (response of Catholic bishops and priests) from the birth of the republic to World War II, it should occasion no surprise that an historian of Catholic social thought should conclude, after mention of a few notable exceptions, that the hierarchy had not been distinguished for farsighted or courageous leadership in social and economic problems.”

What did Msgr. Ellis mean? The first American bishop, John Carroll, of Baltimore, a white as were all U.S. bishops until 1875, personally owned a slave. Other bishops, dioceses, religious congregations and priests owned slaves. Some bishops defended slavery on grounds that slavery actually helped the slaves.

The First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829, involving all American bishops, urged catechizing slaves but gave no details for implementation. Eight more Provincial Councils of Baltimore followed before the Civil War. None questioned slavery.

In Confederate states, Catholic bishops supported secession. New Orleans Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin so fervently upheld the Confederacy that the city’s eventual federal occupation considered him a nuisance if not a threat. Federal forces literally imprisoned Natchez Bishop William Henry Elder for his pro-Confederate views.

Bishop Patrick J. Lynch of Charleston accepted Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s request to go to Rome to urge Blessed Pope Pius IX to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation. (The bishop was not successful.)

More edifying, from the time Europeans and Africans arrived on this continent, American Catholic clergy, particularly in Louisiana, but also in Maryland, the other place of higher concentration of black Catholics, received blacks, slave or free, into the Church and cared for them spiritually — albeit under segregated conditions.

African-American Community

Because of all this, an African–American Catholic community and culture developed.

Marion Indiana
One of the last lynchings of an African-American occurred in 1930 in Marion, Ind., 30 miles from Our Sunday Visitor’s office.Indiana Historical Society P0411 photo

After the war, Baltimore episcopal councils turned to African–Americans, especially freed slaves. Dulling this initiative was the bishops’ regret that emancipation had not been more “gradual,” but outreach and ministry to African–Americans was encouraged. This urging, of course, was directed to a white clergy. No African–American then was a priest. Attention to blacks never was a genuine national Church priority, yet good things happened.

As a special mission, the Josephite Fathers came and evangelized African–Americans. St. Katherine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to teach blacks and Native Americans. In 1884, bishops opened what is now the National Black and Indian Mission office.

When Georgia’s legislature threatened to forbid white instructors in black schools, Father William Lissner, a French priest, and Mother Theodore Williams, an African–American, founded in Savannah, Ga., in 1916, the Handmaids of Mary, a religious community precisely to be schoolteachers for black children.

White priests, including Jesuit Fathers William Markoe and John LaFarge, editor of America magazine, and Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, of the Brooklyn diocese, whose cause for sainthood is underway, spoke and moved for racial equality.

A disturbing angle in the story has to do with African–American Catholic vocations. Stephen J. Ochs, in Desegregating the Altar (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), carefully details this history.

In 1854, James Augustine Healy, the first African–American priest, was ordained. (He became bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875). Born in Georgia, a slave in Georgia since his mother was a slave, he was assumed to be Irish because of his Irish father.

Father Augustus Tolton, born a slave in Missouri, perhaps better illustrates the story of black priestly vocations. No American seminary would enroll him, so he studied in Rome. Ordained in 1886, he died in 1897. He is now a candidate for sainthood. (His biographies, From Slave to Priest [Ignatius Press, 1973], and A Place for My Children [Pennink, 2007] are interesting reads.)

Religious took the lead. In 1889, Josephite Father Charles Uncles, was the first African–American priest ordained in the United States. He was one of few. Then, in 1920, the Society of the Divine Word opened a seminary for African–Americans in Mississippi.

‘It Was Not Time’

Dioceses long rejected African–Americans as seminarians, arguing that “it was not time” because white congregations would not “accept” black priests. (Few suggested correcting this supposed thinking of white congregations.)

Most convents turned black women away — until living memory.

In 1946, Nashville, Tenn.-born Cardinal Samuel Stritch, of Chicago, for whom ministry to African–Americans was an episcopal priority, wrote every Southern bishop urging him to consider African–Americans for his diocesan clergy. Only in 1952 was a black diocesan priest ordained in the South.

Slowly, times were changing. The American Catholic bishops, all white until Auxiliary Bishop Harold R. Perry, S.V.D., of New Orleans, was appointed in 1965, collectively supported the Civil Rights Movement, at least its ideals.

Father Bryan N. Massingale, of the Marquette University theology faculty, however, maintains in Racial Justice in the Catholic Church [Orbis, 2010] that the bishops as a body came late to the scene. Nevertheless, the course was drawn. Many priests and Religious, white as well as black, courageously advocated for equality.

In 1979, all the American bishops published Brothers and Sisters to Us, relying on Scripture and the magisterium to label racism as a sin and as a chronic harm to American life. In 1986, the bishops established the Secretariat for African–American Catholics.

The country’s 10 black bishops issued “What We Have Seen and Heard,” a letter to all American Catholics, in 1984. Stepping forward, it said that African–American Catholics had come of age and looked to reinforcing and spreading the faith.

What about the white Catholic laity’s reaction to slavery and segregation?

Depending upon their wherewithal, white Catholics for two centuries owned slaves. (So did free African–American Catholics.) Before the Civil War, no Catholic of any ethnicity was a prominent abolitionist. The few white Catholic abolitionists were poor, besieged and scattered, except in Louisiana, where white Catholics ran the place.

In 1861, to preserve slavery, a Louisiana state convention voted 113 to 17 to leave the Union. Certainly many deputies were Catholics.

Jefferson Davis, an Episcopalian but with Catholic schooling, was totally committed to slavery. Catholics sat in his cabinet and in the Confederate Congress. High Confederate military commanders were Catholics. Many Catholics bore Confederate arms, including this writer’s Irish-American great-grandfather. The only chaplain killed in action on either side was Benedictine Father Emmeran Bliemel, from Nashville, serving a largely Catholic Confederate unit.

Outside the South

For white Catholics outside the South, it usually was out-of- sight-out-of-mind when it came to mistreating blacks. Sadly, clashes developed on occasion, prompted often by economics, and white Catholics tolerated abusing blacks, generally to avoid upsetting the apple cart.

When the Supreme Court decided Plessy in 1896, the only Catholic on that bench, future Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, from Louisiana, a Caucasian, once a Confederate soldier, concurred.

No Catholic sat on the Supreme Court when Brown was rendered. Many Catholic politicians pressed for desegregation. It was not unanimous. Most Southern memebers of Congress reacted to Brown by vowing in their “Southern Manifesto,” published in 1956, to retain segregation. Every Catholic Southerner in Congress, except one, Paul Kilday (D-TX), a white, signed the “Manifesto.”

President John F. Kennedy, always clearly identified as a Catholic, while philosophically behind racial justice, at first seemed lukewarm about civil rights. But, not long before he was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, he called the idea a moral imperative. (Read The Bystander, by Nick Bryant. [Basic Books, 2006]).

Candidates for Sainthood

Through all these times, African–American Catholicism has come to be a culture of Christian faith and witness. Note the African–American candidates for sainthood, in addition to Father Tolton.

Venerable Henriette De Lille, of New Orleans, was born in 1813 of a Frenchman and part-African–American free woman. Educated, free, seeing blacks wanting all around her, she helped in forming the Sisters of the Holy Family for poor African–Americans.

Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, African–American, born in Haiti, lived in Baltimore. Concerned about oppressed blacks, free or slave, she founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

In New York, a refugee from slavery in Haiti, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a layman, was legendary for his acts of charity.

This is striking. Well before Pope Pius XI’s Catholic Action in the 1920s or the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on the lay apostolate, lay witness was noticeable among black Catholics, individually and collectively. Daniel Rudd, born a slave in 1854 in Kentucky’s old Catholic heartland, later emancipated, moved to Ohio for schooling. In 1886, he founded The American Tribune, a newspaper for black Catholics, for bonding and evangelization. He was instrumental in 1889 when the first Catholic black lay congress assembled.

Thomas Wyatt Turner, born in Maryland in 1877, attended an Episcopalian primary school because the local Catholic school refused to enroll blacks. He pushed for what came to be called “black pride.” He organized groups to confront racism and to create opportunity for blacks.

The Knights of Peter Claver were established for black Catholic men in 1909. An auxiliary for women opened in 1921. (Many white Catholic organizations, particularly in the South, did not admit African–Americans until modern times.)

The Federated Colored Catholics of the United States formed in 1924.

By 1930, many Catholic African–Americans had moved from Southern farms to Northern cities where Catholic night schools, credit unions and fraternal groups came into being. Black Catholic schools always were important.

Groups of black clergy and Religious came together.

An African–American Catholic theologian, Dominican Sister Jamie T. Phelps, wrote in Uncommon Faithfulness (Orbis, 2009), “As we study the history of black Catholics in our Church, we deepen our understanding of how God’s will for our salvation was mediated in and through the everyday experiences of the faith-filled lives of the followers of Christ.”

In 1984, “What We Have Seen and Heard” listed values strong in the African–American Catholic experience: faith in God, hope and forbearance, generosity, the family, a thirst for justice, regard for the Scriptures, respect for ecumenism, recognition of the strengths and gifts of women, admission of racism, and an active sense of vocation.

Amid irreligion, hopelessness, surrender, wandering, injustice and division, these tested African–American Catholic values are incentives for evangelization and personal spiritual growth.

Now, much is better for African–Americans, economically and socially, but the “better” can be a mirage. Economic and social wrongs endure. Racism survives.

Sweeten this culture with the love of Christ, as not that long ago a saintly pontiff implored in St. Louis.

MSGR. CAMPION is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and editor of The Priest magazine.