Martin Luther King Day, which falls on January 21 in 2019, honours the memory of Civil Rights leader, Reverend Martin Luther King. Traditionally, this observance ushers in National Black History Month in February. Both these celebrations invite Americans of all races to reflect on the struggles of blacks to attain civil rights in the wake of emancipation and especially World War II, as well as their contributions to American culture and society as a whole. Certainly, that contribution is one of the main hallmarks distinguishing American from the more general European culture, and it is one we may all be proud of, from the origins of Jazz to African influences on our distinctive cuisine to the military exploits of the Buffalo Soldiers. Religiously, however, American blacks have traditionally been overwhelmingly Protestant. Only 5 per cent are Catholic, as opposed to 24 per cent of the entire United States population.
But what Catholic black Americans may lack in size, they often make up for in fervour. The National Black Catholic Congress was founded in 1889, by journalist Daniel Rudd (1854-1933), born a slave in Bardstown, Kentucky. As blacks were unable to join Southern Knights of Columbus councils during the Jim Crow-era, 20 years later four priests and four laymen founded the Knights of Peter Claver as a Catholic fraternal order for blacks (and to which this writer has the honour to belong). Hundreds of black parishes may be found from coast to coast; such religious orders as the Josephites, Edmundites, Missionaries of Africa, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Sisters of the Holy Family, the Oblate Sisters of Providence devoted all or much of their energy to working with and evangelizing the black community.
The basic foundation of black Catholicism in the United States – as with Christian churches in general – is bound up with both slavery and missionary work. But while such religious orders as the Jesuits and Ursulines owned slaves themselves at different times and places, the Faith early on struggled to render the conditions faced by enslaved Africans and their descendants more humane. St Peter Claver (who lived from 1580-1654, and whose feast is on 9 September ) was called the Apostle of the Slave Trade because of his habit of visiting arriving slave ships to treat the wounds and illnesses of the prisoners, console them, and bring them to baptism. Because of his work among them he was often referred to as the “slave of the claves.”
In French and Spanish possessions (such as Louisiana and the Southwest), those countries’ “black laws” required slave owners to teach their slaves the Catholic Faith, and to acknowledge any children born to them by slave women out of wedlock as their own – and entitled thereby to education and shares of any inheritance. The result in southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as far east as Pensacola was the rise of a well-to-do class of “free people of colour” – often called “Creoles” (a title uneasily shared with their white relatives). A second source of black Catholicism was the old Catholic colony of Maryland and its daughter settlement in Kentucky – whence came Daniel Rudd. To these fountainheads was added a third, when the Haitian slave revolt of 1792 precipitated a flow of both black and white émigrés from that island to the major American ports. Such cities as Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, and Norfolk thus received their first Catholics. (Ironically, the first leader of the rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture, was a devout Catholic and royalist who began the uprising against the new republican authorities after the overthrow of Louis XVI).
Of course, there have been other currents of black Catholicity in America. As mentioned, in the Southwest, Spanish law created a class of free blacks. One was the first black mayor of Los Angeles in the 1790s. But these were quickly assimilated into the general Hispanic population, even as later black immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Portuguese Azores, Cape Verdes, and Madeira islands tended to identify more with their white countrymen than with American blacks. So too, such recent Catholic arrivals as the Garifuna from Central America and the Igbo from Nigeria tend to regard themselves as separate peoples, given their linguistic and cultural differences.
While much more could be written about the secular accomplishments of black Catholics such as Billie Holiday, Marian Anderson, Rodolphe Desdunes, Homer Plessy, Emmitt Douglas, Ralph Metcalfe, and a host of others, where they have excelled out of proportion to their numbers is in the creation of candidates for sainthood. Ven. Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) was a Haitian refugee who fled with his white owner to New York, supported her by his barbering trade until her death, and became known for his piety and help for the poor. Ven. Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) was the New Orleans-born foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Servants of God Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882), foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Fr Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first black priest ordained in the United States, and founder of the first black parish in Chicago; Julia Greeley (1833-1918), an ex-slave from Missouri which became Denver’s “angel of charity;” and Thea Bowman (1933-1990), a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and convert from Methodism who pursued new ways of evangelising American blacks.
With the advent of the Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans within the Catholic Church, it is worth noting that there developed in the Episcopal Church in the United States a tradition of black Anglo-Catholicism, which owed some of its strength to immigration from the British West Indies. Eclipsed just as Anglo-Catholicism as a whole has been by the doctrinal collapse of Anglicanism, it is to be hoped that a home for as many of its proponents as possible might be found in the North American Ordinariate – they would be a welcome addition to the proud traditions of black Catholicism in this country.
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