A History of Black Catholics in the United States
Editor’s note: The following essay was authored by Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. in the May 3, 1980 issue of America. Father Davis was an expert in Black Catholic history and died in 2015. You can read his obituary here. This article maintains the magazine style in use at the time of its publication.
A little over 50 years ago, writing in AMERICA (July 21, 1928) on “The Unknown Field of Negro History,” John LaFarge, S.J., noted: “No words need be wasted to show the importance of the history of the Negro for our national history: His life is a background for a great part of it. On the Negro, as on a pivot, turned the decisive struggle for the nation’s existence ....”
The history of the black Catholic community is just as important for the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. More than we realize, the history of the black Catholic community is coextensive with the history of the American Catholic community. What is needed today are historical studies that no longer simply probe the ministry and apostolate to blacks but rather focus the spotlight on the black Catholic community itself to determine its role in the Catholic drama of the last two centuries.
True, the history of the black Catholic community is very small compared to the history of black America at large which formed the black church, Protestant in its affiliation and its creed, uniquely African in its ethos and its celebration. The heroes of black people in this country are the black pastors and the black prophets. Alongside of this now glorious tradition, the story of the small group of black Catholics, that clung proudly and even at times desperately to its Roman and universalist traditions, to its saints, its pastors and its religious sisters, seems perhaps insignificant. They were the minority that was ministered to but seemingly did not minister, that was preached to but did not preach, that was provided for but did not provide. And yet without that black Catholic community American Catholicism would not have the characteristics it has today.
Yet, it is an elusive history. It is as elusive as Esteban, the first black Catholic who emerges on the American scene. He was the advance scout for the first expedition of the Spanish Franciscan missionary Fra Marcos de Niza into the American Southwest in 1539. Esteban was killed on that expedition, but without him Fray Marcos would not have found his way to what he thought were the cities of gold. This history is as elusive as the black trader, Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, French in language, Catholic in religion, suspect to the British and friend of the Potowatami Indians. He seemingly was a devout man, for he cared enough about his religion to go to great lengths to have his marriage to an Indian woman blessed by a priest, and he was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Saint Charles, Missouri, in 1818. He established his trading post on the site of the future city of Chicago. With some justification black Catholics can be proud that this largest of the Midwestern cities has a black and a Catholic for its founder.
More than we realize, the history of the black Catholic community is coextensive with the history of the American Catholic community.
There is nothing elusive, however, about the solid black Catholic community in Maryland that numbered about 3,000 slaves, which the future Archbishop John Carroll described in his report to Cardinal Antonelli, the Secretary of State of Pius IX, in 1785. This black Catholic community with its long tradition of Catholic faith would be the nucleus of black Catholicism not only in southern Maryland where it began but also in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and the Catholic centers of Nelson County and Hardin County in Kentucky. It was in this tradition of black Catholicism in southern Maryland, one might add, that the young Father LaFarge first exercised his priestly ministry. Nor is there anything elusive about the black Catholic community that existed in Archbishop Carroll’s day in southern Louisiana, rich in tradition, distinctive in language and culture, and self-confident in its particular identity. As Randall M. Miller has pointed out, this rich source of black Catholic history has not yet been fully exploited. It is time that the modern methods of historical research were used to reveal how and why the faith managed to survive.
“Survival” is a key word in black history, and it is a pivotal question in the history of black Catholicism. If the slaves were catechized, there had to be a community that not only received the catechesis but internalized and passed it on. What prompted slave parents to transmit their faith to their children? What prompted slave families to go to extraordinary lengths to practice their religion and receive the sacraments? How did these people make the Catholic tradition their own? What were the forms of worship they used to nourish their spiritual life not only in the sanctuary but in their homes? It was not only the work of their white priests.
What prompted slave families to go to extraordinary lengths to practice their religion and receive the sacraments? It was not only the work of their white priests.
Part of the answer lies in one of the most remarkable phenomena of black Catholicism, the emergence of black Catholic sisterhoods. In 1829 four black women under the leadership of Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange formed the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore under a rule of lite drawn up by the French Sulpician priest Jacques Joubert. When the majority of blacks were slaves and when schooling for black children was practically nonexistent, these courageous women against terrific odds began the instruction of black children in Baltimore. The story of their survival with little support from either clergy or faithful, the last-minute assistance given them by the saintly John Neumann, the spread of their congregation to other areas despite the incredible poverty of the sisters—all of this is a little-known aspect of Catholic history in this country.
The work of the Oblate Sisters and the work also of the second group of black sisters in Louisiana, the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded in 1842, are a reminder that even in the period of slavery the black Catholic community took a leading role in its own evangelization and education. Here too the modern historian has a rich source for future research. A study of the individuals in these two religious orders, a study of their family backgrounds, of their students and their milieu will reveal much about the makeup of the black Catholic community, the personality and the attitudes of this community, and the role it envisaged for itself both before the Civil War and afterwards. It is significant that at a time when there were no black priests, black families had a sense of faith that enabled them to send their daughters to a convent and their children to be educated.
In less than a generation after the Civil War, black Catholics attempted the formation of a national organization to coordinate their efforts for more Catholic schools and even for an end to racial discrimination on the parish level. This effort was spearheaded by a remarkable black layman, Daniel Rudd, who was born in Bardstown, Kentucky in 1854. In 1889 he began the first black Catholic newspaper, the American Catholic Tribune, a weekly which he edited from 1889 to 1899, first in Cincinnati and then in Detroit. Mr. Rudd was both a militant Catholic and a militant supporter of civil rights for blacks. His major thesis, which was the underlying philosophy expressed in each issue of his weekly newspaper and which he made the subject of lectures in various parts of the country, was simply this: The one great hope for blacks in the United States was the Catholic Church. “The Holy Roman Catholic Church,” he wrote, “offers to the oppressed Negro a material as well as spiritual refuge; superior to all the inducements of other organizations combined.” Not only did he publish almost singlehandedly his newspaper—which at one point was claimed to have a circulation of 10,000—he also began the series of Catholic Afro-American congresses, which met for the first time in Washington, D.C., in 1889. They were to have four more meetings during the 1890’s, which is significant when it is recalled that there were only two national Catholic congresses of the laity during this same period.
These congresses assembled leading black Catholic laymen from all over the country. They give a clear indication of the role that black Catholics held for themselves. It was a dual role: a profession in the most solemn manner of their faith and a presentation of the needs of the black Catholic community for secondary school education and an end to discrimination within the church. Here again a more in-depth study of the various participants in these congresses will give a larger picture of the black Catholic community. For example, it would be interesting to discover whether at this time there was a larger proportion of professional men in the black Catholic community in comparison with other black religious groups. The subsequent careers of these black Catholic leaders is also important for the history of black Catholicism. Such a study is now in progress.
Mr. Rudd’s own career during this period is significant. His contacts with both blacks and whites here and abroad is an indication of an energy and a dedication to the church that may have been more widespread in the black community at the end of the 19th century than originally thought. The columns of his newspaper were open to the news and opinions not only of black Catholics but of other leading black activists, like T. Thomas Fortune and Frederick Douglass. It is evident from his newspaper and from the sentiments expressed in the black Catholic congresses that the black Catholic community had a concern for Catholic teaching and for the realization of racial justice both within the church and within American society. It bears out a salient feature of the role of black Catholics in American church history that Father LaFarge noted some 25 years ago: “The Negro brings to the church something that is in danger of disappearing from its life in this country and thereby putting American Catholicism out of touch with the rest of the great universal suffering world—a keen sense of social justice.”
In 1924 Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner, who died in 1978 at the age of 101, established the Federated Colored Catholics in the United States, an organization of black Catholics working for an end to discrimination within the American Catholic Church. Composed of lay leaders from the black Catholic community, it was both a continuation of the work of Daniel Rudd and a forerunner of the black civil rights organizations of the 1960’s. Dr. Turner respectfully but deliberately parted company from the efforts of Rev. John LaFarge, S.J., and Rev. William Markoe, S.J., who with other leading white and black Catholics organized the Catholic Interracial Councils in 1934. Dr. Turner saw the need for black Catholics to be the leaders in their own development. His conception of the role of black Catholics within the church would become the position of black Catholics at the end of the 1960’s. The black Catholics who formed the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the Black Sisters Conference in 1968 and the National Office for Black Catholics in 1970 are the lineal descendents of the black consciousness of Dr. Turner and of Mr. Rudd.
The black Catholic community in the last 204 years has been a microcosm of the Catholic Church in America.
On the other hand, the black Catholic community in the last 204 years has been a microcosm of the Catholic Church in America. There are no black American saints, but there are saintly black Catholics like Pierre Toussaint, who walked the streets of old New York in the first part of the 19th century dispensing charity and practicing the works of mercy despite his own poverty. There is the saintly foundress of a religious order, Mary Elizabeth Lange. There is the saintly parish priest, Augustine Tolton of Chicago, the first recognized black priest in this country, who knew suffering and lived in total dedication to his ministry, dying at the early age of 43 in 1897. There is a family with a secret tragedy, the Healy brothers: James Augustine Healy, the first black bishop in this country (bishop of Portland, Maine in 1875); Sherwood, pastor and chancellor in Boston; Patrick, a Jesuit and president of Georgetown University. Aloof from the black Catholic community, half white and half black, their racial identity a source of ambivalence—they are a symbol of many black priests and religious who found racial identification a source of pain.
The black Catholic community also has its many converts: famous ones like the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, who left Communism to find his spiritual home in the Catholic Church in the last years of his life; or the Air Force General Daniel James, who died in 1978. It has had its share of artists, politicians, educators, physicians and jurists. In relation to the black community as such during the last two centuries, it probably has varied little in achievement and success and it has shared completely in the oppression that all American blacks have experienced. In what lay the difference?
No doubt it lay in the religious consciousness that was their gift of faith. It was the sense of “catholic” in the root meaning of the word that seemed to permeate the black Catholic consciousness. In 1889 when black Americans were beginning one of the most tragic decades in the history of the United States in terms of lynchings and the passage of legislation insuring segregation, the first Catholic Afro-American Congress was held in January in the parish hall of St. Augustine’s church in Washington, D.C. At the last session the congress members drew up an address to their Catholic fellow citizens in which they expressed the following:
“Knowing too that our divinely established and divinely guided church ... will be the innate force of her truth, gradually prevailing ... and ... anxious not to forestall in any way the time marked by God for bringing about this great work, we feel confident that this ... expression of our convictions, of our hopes and of our resolutions, will have ... the advantage of proving that we—the Catholic representatives of our people—have earnestly contributed our humble share to the ... work for whose final accomplishment all our brothers are ardently yearning.”
This has been the unique role of the black Catholic community in American history: to speak to the church in this country, about justice and brotherhood in terms of the church’s own tradition, to speak to their fellow black men and women in terms of the church’s universal call to all people and to speak to the nation in terms of the church’s real identity as “catholic” in a racist society. It is because of the existence of the black community within the Catholic Church from the very beginning of its existence in this country that the history of the Catholic Church in this country is unique.