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Neglecting Black Catholic history

Black Catholic podcaster Efram Menny advocates for Black Catholic history—American and Catholic history that is often set (and cast) aside.

Toward the end of April, I tweeted, “Black Catholic History IS Catholic History” with a photo of the National Black Catholic Congress’ mural of prominent Black Catholics and allies for equality.


No harm in a simple message, right?

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response on tweets such as this, I occasionally still manage to get bitterness from a small number of Catholics.

The counterclaim was almost like a redirection to the ideals of the Christian faith or a revision of the historical facts. Thankfully, I’m not the only Catholic of African descent that notices subtle attacks! We have a safe space for sharing our frustrations about the dominant view rejecting our views.

Black Catholic history, with all its greatness and luster, is still something fighting for the proper respect it deserves amongst the broader American Catholic scope.

The Problem

The intention of the tweet was to signify a truth about history. Sometimes, far too often in American history, Black Americans are on the negative end of the spectrum of its retelling. Yet, even in the negativity, Black people made a way.

The same could go for Black Catholics in America. Despite centuries of discrimination, racism, and unfair treatment, their zeal and fortitude remained steadfast against adversity.

When figures like Abraham Lincoln are upheld and Booker T. Washington is eclipsed, that’s a problem. Washington is just as important to American history as Lincoln, but because our society has made Black History Month acceptable, many tend to put this month in its own history while unknowingly perpetuating its distinction from the larger historical context of the U.S. tradition.

Likewise, November is Black Catholic History Month. To illustrate the parallel, I'll note that popular American Catholic figures like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton have become household names for Catholics in America. Yet someone just as important is Venerable Henriette DeLille, a creole religious sister from New Orleans that created the Sisters of the Holy Family in the early 1800s.

Again, mainstream American Catholicism championing Seton or Blessed Solanus Casey and neglecting figures like Venerable Pierre Toussaint perpetuates the othering of Black Catholic history.

Sad but True

Every once in a while, one person will come along and say something as a rebuttal to anything against diversity in the Church. Unfortunately, I can’t stress how many times I’ve had conversations defending matters such as the ancient practice of liturgical diversity in the Catholic Church.

Specifically, in response to my post, someone thought it would be a great idea to share that Church is a place of impartiality.

Indeed, this is true. As St. Paul declared, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28, RSVCE)

But the Church in America has miserably failed at living up to this. Some would argue the Church’s response to evangelization and support of Black parishes is still a failure!

Just examine Black Catholic history and you’ll see how Blacks were excluded from the sacraments, seminaries, and religious life. The fact that American Catholicism had the stain of racism is a gut-wrenching reality. Far from being an equal Church, it was exclusionary at best.

Today, we have stories of people like Venerable Augustus Tolton that attests to the rancid past of hate of American seminaries.

Institutions like the Society of the Divine Word have the first record of having a seminary for Black men that wanted to become priests.

Likewise, Black Catholics like Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner created the Federated Colored Catholics in the 1920s to advocate policies that would abolish widespread discrimination & racism in Catholic Institutions (seminaries, schools, churches).

Also, another Black Catholic that took offense to the status quo was Mother Mary Theodore Williams. She founded the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary in 1916 to combat a racist law that targeted prohibited religious and pastoral care to Black Americans.

Again and again, examples like this turn up in American Catholicism.

The fact that specific Church-enacted racism went on for so long is a blemish on the Church’s history of failing to practice what it preaches.

Voices in the Wilderness

To a degree, I imagine a fringe segment of the American Church would prefer Black Catholics to remain silent on matters of Black Catholic history. To even speak of it incites “division” in a Body that is founded on oneness.

However, Black Catholics have experienced the exodus for far too long. Their journey in the outskirts of obscurity and abandonment was a disastrous failure on what it means to be a part of the Church (Latin: ecclesia) which conveys the special assembly of people for worship.

The fight for legitimacy in the Church has been successful in its doses, but there is still an uphill climb.

originally posted on the blog (and reprinted with permission) of Efran Menny, a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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