In 1949, famed Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes celebrated Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month) with members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and their students at the all black and Catholic St. Alphonsus School in Wilson, North Carolina.
“The Negro nuns had an assembly of tiny youngsters who did all by themselves a fine Negro History program,” Hughes wrote in The Chicago Defender one week later. And of particular delight to the esteemed poet had been the students’ apt recitation of his protest poem, “Freedom’s Plow.”
“Who is America?” the students chanted. “You, me! We are America!”
Originally published in 1943, “Freedom’s Plow” charted the long African American struggle for freedom, justice and equality from slavery to the present. During World War II, the poem had also served as a call to action for African Americans struggling against fascism abroad and at home.
That students at the St. Alphonsus School had studied and memorized this poem as part of their curriculum for Negro History Week in 1949 is more than noteworthy. It stands as a powerful testament to the visionary leadership of the nation’s black Catholic sisterhoods and their pioneering commitment to black historical truth telling within church boundaries.
During the Jim Crow era, schools administered by the African American sisterhoods became the first Catholic institutions to teach and celebrate black history and art in the United States. Perhaps of no great surprise, these black sister-led Catholic schools were also the first American educational institutions to teach and champion black Catholic history.
As a part of their annual Negro History Week celebrations, students at schools led by black nuns routinely performed skits documenting the pioneering history of black Catholics in the United States. On the high school level, students often wrote essays exploring the long and rich history of black Catholics in the church, especially in Africa, which became home to the world’s earliest Catholic churches and monasteries in the third and fourth centuries.
Like Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week, black nuns understood the subversive power of black history in the face of rampant discrimination, misrepresentation and erasure. Because many black nuns were the descendants of the free and enslaved black people whose labor and sales built the early American church, they also recognized how essential teaching black Catholic history was in the fight against racism in their church.
Despite the herculean efforts of the black sisterhoods and those who followed in their footsteps, the teaching of black and black Catholic history outside of predominantly black Catholic institutions remains rare in the contemporary church.
In the United States, where the roots of many black Catholics predate those of the vast majority of white and white ethnic Catholics by at least three centuries, popular and scholarly discussions and depictions of the American Catholic experience rarely include the church’s black faithful. At best, black Catholics are presented as historical anomalies. At worst, they are altogether erased.
As one major consequence, recent calls for the Catholic Church to confront and make reparation for its long-standing histories of slavery and segregation have been met with genuine shock and confusion by far too many Catholics, religious and lay alike. There are also still many people who sincerely believe that there are no African American Catholics.
These realities stand as searing indictments of the church’s enduring failure to tell the truth about itself and teach accurate and inclusive accounts of Catholic history in its schools, seminaries and parishes.
As we mark this 94th annual celebration of black history during February, I encourage all Catholics interested in justice, reconciliation and peace to commit to learning about the central place of black people in the church’s long and complex history.
Black history is and always has been Catholic history. It is time for the church to embrace this fundamental truth.
Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. She is completing her first book, “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle,” under contract with Duke University Press.