In the History Corner… Black Catholics celebrate nearly 2,000 years of history this month

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The month of November finds some three million Black Catholics in America celebrating Black Catholic History Month. Such celebrations have taken place since the month was dubbed such in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

Obviously, the nature of the celebrations will vary. Nevertheless, the celebrations are based upon nearly 2,000 years of membership, since Black people were involved in initiating and developing it from the very beginning. Historian Cyprian Davis states, “All Black history begins in Africa. In one way or another, Africa became part of the self-understanding of American Blacks throughout the nineteenth century.” He goes on to say, “The Black Catholic community in America was no exception.” He declares, “It sought its roots in the religious experiences of Africa and its self-definition in the African saints of the early church.”

Therefore, as they celebrate, Black Catholics should recall much of the following:

• During the first 300 years of its history, at least three of the popes, the head of the Catholic Church, were Africans – Pope Saint Victor I, Pope Saint Gelasius, and Pope Saint Miltiades. At that time, the church was primarily in Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. The rest of Europe would become Christian much later, the rest of Asia and the Americas even later.

• Many of the early Catholic saints such as Saints Monica, Augustine, Felicitas and Perpetua, Athanasius, and Saint Moses the Black were African people.

• Several noted early church historians and teachers, including Origen and Tertullian, were Black Catholics. They have also given strong evidence that many of the characters in the Old and New Testament of the Christian Bible were Africans.

For several centuries, prior to the assumptions of the Roman Empire, much of the Catholic Church revolved around Africans – the direct ancestors of Black Americans. There were Catholic kingdoms in Africa, just as there were later Muslim kingdoms. 

Then came the Arab invasions and occupation, European colonialism, and the Atlantic slave trade. These phenomena began another dynamic. Captured and purchased Africans who were brought to America were deemed “savages” and “heathens.” This meant that if any enslaved Africans did become recognized or baptized as Catholic, they were expected to adopt the European version of worship embraced by their enslavers. They were no longer highly involved.

Furthermore, it is at this point that the history of African Catholicism is lost or at least hidden. Historian Cyprian Davis refers to those Black Catholics as a church in chains. During the period of slavery, historian Christopher Kellerman, as well as Davis, relays that there were anti-Black and pro-slavery expressions coming from some leaders and white members of the church just as there were anti-slavery or abolitionist expressions coming from other Catholics.

Amidst and emerging from those dark days of Black Catholic history, there are several positive or progressive things which Black Catholics are also likely to note and celebrate as a part of their history.

 At a time when there was vigorous opposition to the education of Black people, the Catholic Church began “missions” in Black communities. This frequently included building schools that educated Black children. Along that line, it is important to realize, for an example, that Holy Ghost High School pre-dated Lanier High School, that Sacred Heart High School pre-dated Coleman High School in Greenville, and that other noted high schools for Black children were established in places like Vicksburg, Meridian, Yazoo City, Clarksdale, Natchez, and urban areas such as New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

Catholic dioceses in many places such as St. Louis, Baltimore, and Washington desegregated their schools before the public schools. The efforts of Bishops Richard Gerow and Joseph Brunini of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson are excellent local examples. Even more dramatic was the excommunication of several prominent white segregationist members by the Archbishop of New Orleans when those schools were desegregated.

The high visibility and significant involvement of priests and nuns in many civil rights protests was quite noteworthy as was the manner in which civil rights leaders and their children were provided oases and shelter from violence and discrimination in places like Natchez, Yazoo City, Greenwood, Meridian, Clarksdale, and Jackson.

Throughout this turbulent period, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Servant of God Mary Lange, Servant of God Julia Greeley, and Servant of God Thea Bowman lived such saintly lives until they have now been widely recognized as candidates for sainthood.

After years of struggle, the Society of the Divine Word was able to establish a seminary to develop Black priests in Greenville, Mississippi. That seminary, St. Augustine Seminary, continues to exist in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.

Daniel Rudd created The Ohio Tribune, later called The American Catholic Tribune, and with a group of his cohorts organized the first national Black Catholic Conference, called the Colored Catholic Congress, which for several years expressed the views of Black Catholic laypersons. The idea was revived and today exists as the National Black Catholic Congress and continues to serve as an official organ for Black Catholics.

Although it has been a long time coming, today it is not unusual to find Black priests being elevated to bishop and being appointed to head dioceses as has been done in Memphis, Atlanta, Charleston, Louisville, Mandeville, Pensacola/Tallahassee, Beaumont, Bellville, and Washington, DC. Even more have served as auxiliary bishops. Several Black bishops have led the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. These recognitions have come as a result of the competence and loyalty of these men.

Having overcome a great deal of racial oppression, as was experienced by other Black Americans, Black Catholics must be ready and willing to build on the kinds of facts and accomplishments above to reach higher heights. They are proud of their ancestors but still face barriers and criticisms. 

There is racial animosity and oppression within and outside the church. It must be confronted spiritually and socially, politically and intellectually. For that, Black Catholics must lock arms with other like-conscious individuals and carry on the struggle. 

As for the criticism, many Black Catholics have heard that the Catholic Church is white man’s church. This should not cause Catholics to become defensive nor retreat from common Black struggles since it is not true and since all Black people must stick together for the larger fight. Rather, Black Catholics need to understand the reason for the criticism and work to show the reality of the situation.

Much of the criticism stems from the loss of the history of Black Catholicism, especially from Africa. It stems from the relatively small number of Catholics there are among African Americans. It stems from the fact that Catholic theology, much of it espoused by early African bishops, is so new to Black people raised in a basically protestant environment. Finally, it stems from the fact that much of the cultural part of many Catholic services consists of European music and modes of expression/decorum. 

Perhaps with the continued celebrations of Black Catholic History Month more Black Catholics will (1) lovingly and liberally explain, but not debate, Catholic theology with their inquiring neighbors; (2) relate the history of Black Catholicism, including that of early Africa to those around them, including their children; (3) request that homilies and other expressions from Catholic leaders readily and regularly explore racial and social justice issues as they affect Black lives; and (4) that they will more enthusiastically embrace Black cultural elements in their music and modes of expression. 

Although it may sound strange, the matter of celebrating Black Catholic History Month can be good for greater unity among Black people. It can destroy myths, reveal truths, and uncover commonalities. The truth never hurts anyone. Catholics coming together must be understood in that context. It is not a partisan get together, but a search for a past that brings them closer to other Black people who have experienced the same journey because they were Black, not because they were Methodist, Baptist, or any other denomination. 

Thus, we say to all of our Catholic friends, enjoy this month of celebration. Be proud of who you are and help your neighbors take pride in who they are, whenever they have such a time of celebration. So strengthened, they can face and conquer the challenges of today and tomorrow.

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In the History Corner… Black Catholics celebrate nearly 2,000 years of history this month

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
November 3, 2022