February is Black History Month, a special time for reflection on the contributions African-Americans have made to this country. Plainly stated, the United States is inconceivable apart from her African-American heritage, and it is an inheritance we all share and should treasure. In every field, from science and technology to business, the law, athletics, the arts, education, religion, healthcare and politics, American life and culture has been shaped in fundamental ways by the fraction of citizens who trace their ethnic roots to sub-Saharan Africa. In the strictly cultural sense, to be an American is to be an African-American.
What is true for the United States generally is also true for the American Catholic community. There are an estimated three million African-American Catholics in the United States, including 13 bishops. Many are immigrants from “traditionally” Catholic nations like Haiti and Nigeria, but many more are the descendants of American slaves. This is particularly true in New Orleans, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of African-American Catholics in the country. On several occasions I’ve been blessed to attend Mass at St. Peter Claver Church, a large African-American parish in the Crescent City. The same exuberant style of worship and rich preaching that we associate with the black Baptist or Pentecostal church is also present at St. Peter Claver, as it is at liturgies in many predominantly African-American parishes.
Chicago is another city with a concentration of black Catholics, perhaps not surprising given the contours of the Great Migration of the early and mid-20th Century, during which an estimated 6 million African-Americans left the South, including Louisiana, in search of work and freedom from Jim Crow. Chicago has given the Church eleven African-American bishops over the years, and Cardinal George recently approved opening the cause for canonization of Fr. Augustine Tolton, a former slave who became the first African-American priest in America. Tolton, now a “Servant of God,” served in ministry on the South Side of Chicago.
Baltimore is home to the National Black Catholic Conference (NBCC), founded by the first African-American newspaper publisher in America, Daniel Rudd. The NBCC’s board of trustees include representatives from the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters Conference, the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, the Knights of Peter Claver, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Conference, the Institute for Black Catholic Studies (Xavier University of Louisiana), and the USCCB. Among the many excellent resources available at the NBCC website is a short history of the African-American Catholic community in America. As with everything touching on race in America, the story is bittersweet and achingly familiar. If you’d like to dig deeper into this topic, there is no better resource than “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” by Cyprian Davis.
St. Peter Claver and Venerable Pierre Toussaint, pray for us!
*”Ain’t-a That Good News” is the title of a Negro spiritual. The song appears in “Lead Me, Guide Me,” a black Catholic hymnal published by GIA.