The late Toni Morrison and Henrietta Lacks were inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame on December 10th, the first in a series of virtual inductions.

Morrison is somewhat commonly known to have been a baptized Catholic, but Lacks may come as a surprise to many.

Joining them in the induction were four other African-American women, including Aretha Franklin.

Toni

Morrison, one of the great writers—and Catholic writers—in American and world history, was compared by Cornel West to Flannery O'Connor in 2012.

Such is her influence and output, as well as her religion.

While her given name was actually Chloe, she began to go by 'Toni' after choosing St. Anthony as her baptismal name when she converted at age 12.

So at an early age I moved into this other religion and was perfectly content with its aesthetics. That's shallow, I understand (laughter). But that's what it was, until I grew up a little older and began to take it seriously and then - took it seriously for years and years and years.
(Morrison, in a 2015 interview with NPR)

She later distanced herself from the Church—as did many Black Catholics during their "revolution" between 1968 and the 1990s (which met fierce resistance and racism).

While Morrison did not go into detail about why she stopped practicing, she spoke positively of Pope Francis before her death and noted she "might be easily seduced to go back to church."

Her funeral took place last year at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, with a eulogy from Oprah.

Henrietta

Lacks, whose posthumous rise to fame involves her fast-multiplying "HeLa" cells, has been a major figure of interest since her life and medical legacy became a part of a popular culture in the 21st century.

Her family wasn't told of her vast contributions to medical research until a quarter-century after her 1951 death from cervical cancer, and there has been no compensation given for the unauthorized use of her cells.

Her story went viral after Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book on her life became a bestseller.

Though Oprah didn't eulogize Lacks at her funeral, and though Skloot's work didn't make Oprah's Book Club, Winfrey did portray Lacks in HBO's film adaption.

While her Catholic religion does not appear to have been featured in either, a Catholic News Service article from the year of the film's release notes that she "was not only practicing her Catholic faith but was devoted to it and to her family."

Shortly before his death, U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings joined his fellow Maryland legislator Senator Chris Van Hollen in introducing bills in Congress that would honor her legacy by expanding cancer research trials to underserved communities.

The legislation cleared Congress yesterday, heading to the president's desk just months after the centennial celebration of Lacks' birth.


Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).


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