An African-American Woman Writes to Pope Pius IX, 1853

African American DaguerrotypeNew York, October 29th, 1863

Most Holy Father Visible Head of the Church of Jesus Christ.

I humbly write these lines to beseech your Holiness in the name of the same Saviour if you will provide for the salvation of the black race in the United States who is going astray from neglect on the part of those who have the care of souls. Now I would dare to say anything disrespectful against the ministers of God but the reason for this neglect is, as it is well known to your Holiness, that most of the Bishops and priests in this country is either Irish or descended from Irish and not being accustomed to the black race in Ireland they can’t think enough of them to take charge of our souls. Hence it is a great mistake to say that the church watched with equal care over every race and color, for how can it be said that they teach all nations when they will not let the black race mix with the white. We know that this teaching does not mean high learning but means a teaching of Holy Doctrine. But in this country the teaching of the word of God and learning is so closely connected together that he who receives the one receives the other. The Catholics teach the pure word of God and gave learning at the same time. The Protestants gave learning and teach the word of God unadulterated.

Now the Protestant rule in the city and county of New York is that all poor children in every district no matter what color they are must attend the State schools. A very good rule too, but the evil overshadows the good. Those are the evils: as soon as the teachers find any children in these schools to be Catholics they teach them directly to protest against the church of God. They tell them that the Blessed Eucharist is nothing but a wafer, that the priest drinks the wine himself and gives the bread to us, and that the Divine institution of confession is only to make money and that the Roman pontiff is Anti-Christ. This is what Catholic children are taught in Protestant Schools, but the church [can] remedy these evils for the white children by providing schools where they can learn the pure word of God and how to keep it. But the church do[es] leave the colored children a prey to the wolf. Now the Protestants well know that the Catholics do not like the black race with them neither in the churches nor schools. Hence they take advantage of the opportunity…

Yes, Holy Father this is precisely the conditions of the colored Catholics in most of the United States… but particularly in New York. If your Holiness’s Nuncio were to condescend while he is here to inquire about the colored people he would find many families with the parents Catholics and the children Protestants, overwhelmed with the belief that the name of Catholic amongst the black race will in a few years fall away…

Yes Most Holy Father if I was to write this out of disrespect or to give scandal I would deserve punishment from God and from your Holiness, but I do not mean disrespect. I only write it to pray to your Holiness to take charge of us, Most Holy Father. I pray you will pardon my liberty for writing this letter but every word is true. I hope if it is the will of God for the black race to be saved something will soon take place for the better…

From Harriet…. Thompson, College Place, New York City (There were twenty-six signers of this letter.)

Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., and Jamie Phelps, O.P., Stamped with the Image of God: African Americans as God’s Image in Black (New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 30-32.

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