As another school year begins, in arguably the most challenging circumstances of recent memory, one glimmer of hope has been the appointment of a number of Black Catholics to prominent positions at American colleges and universities (Catholic and secular).
Occurring over the past year, several of these moves are historic firsts, as institutional posts at Catholic institutions continue opening to persons outside of consecrated life and the priesthood, and to persons outside of the dominant culture.
Below is a sampling of such changes, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the Deep South—living Black history being made in the nation and in the Church.
Dr. William F. “Bill” Tate IV made headlines in May when he was announced as the new president of Louisiana State University after a publicly-broadcast selection process involving several rounds of live virtual interviews.
He made fewer headlines on religious grounds, having been raised Catholic in Chicago. His current religious affiliation is unclear, and he is married to Kim Cash Tate, a popular evangelical author and internet personality, but it’s clear that his Christian faith remains strong.
LSU, the pride of one of the nation’s most Catholic states, was once a bastion of segregation—requiring the legal intervention of A. P. Tureaud Sr., a Black Catholic himself, in order for his son A. P. Jr. to gain admission in the early 1950s. (He was later expelled on a technicality.)
Now, as the first African American to head any school in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Tate has his work cut out for him, facing not only the ravages of COVID-19 but now also the historic Hurricane Ida during the first week of classes at his new school.
Since September 2020, fully in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, Vice Admiral James W. Crawford III has been at the helm of Felician University, a small Catholic university in New Jersey just outside of Newark (near New York City).
It is run by the Felician Sisters, a congregation of sisters based in Pennsylvania.
Having guided the school through its COVID crisis while serving on an interim basis—including accomplishing the rare feat of increasing enrollment during the pandemic year—Crawford was named the sixth president of the university in late June. He is the first male and the first Black person to serve in the role.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Crawford was educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence as a child and later attended Belmont Abbey College in the 1970s—shortly after Black students protested the lack of representation at the school in 1969.
Crawford would go on to become a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the US Navy after obtaining a law degree from the University of Miami. He retired from the military in 2018, and attended Nativity Catholic Church in Burke, Virginia before coming to Felician.
Holy Cross (Massachusetts)
From the congregation to the college, Vincent Rougeau is all about the Crucifixion, now the 33rd president in the history of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts—the first lay or Black president in the school’s history.
A southwest Louisiana native, cradle Catholic, and two-time Ivy League grad, in the late 1990s Rougeau became a professor at the law school of the University of Notre Dame, which is run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
Prior to his new gig in New England, Rougeau served as dean of the law school at Boston College Law School (which, like Holy Cross, is a Jesuit institution). Almost exactly a month before being named to his new post, he was announced as the president of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS).
Apropos, then, is the fact that Holy Cross once educated each of the four Healy brothers of Georgia, White-passing Black Catholics who went on to become, respectively, the first African-American priest and bishop (James); the first African American Jesuit, PhD, and president of a major university (Patrick); and the first African American commander of a US government ship (Michael).
St. Mary’s (Minnesota)
Having begun his duties as Vice President for Inclusion and Human Dignity on June 1st, Dixon comes at a critical moment in US Church history, as institutions across the country seek to position themselves more fully within the Church’s social tradition of service to those in most need.
Dixon brings to his position a storied commitment to such values, as evidenced by his previous position in the Office of Equity and Success at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. And like Crawford, he is a military veteran.
A Detroit native, he also has experience working directly with the Church, having headed the Black ministry office for the archdiocese from 2016 to 2019. (Mount Saint Mary’s announcement of his hiring in 2019 noted that the Motor City had more Black parishes than any city in the country.)
Dixon’s work in Catholic education is also extensive and longstanding, dating back to his time with Detroit Cristo Rey High School beginning in the late aughts.
Correction: a previous version of this story failed to include Leon Dixon Jr.'s title as a vice president at St Mary's.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).