The painful, resilient history of America’s black Catholics
By Adelaide Mena
(CNA)—For Father Stephen Thorne, Black History Month is not only a chance to remember the struggles faced by the African-American community throughout the centuries.
It’s also an opportunity to learn from the witness of one of the oldest communities of Catholics in the U.S.
This witness of Black Catholics, in the face of discrimination and animus, is a gift all Catholics can learn from, said Fr. Thorne, an African-American priest in the Philadelphia archdiocese.
“The resilience of African-American Catholics today is a sign of (their) great faith,” he told CNA.
David Okonkwo, Director of the Diocesan Ministry to Catholics of African Descent, said African-Americans and Africans who are Catholic continue to be met with exclusion in Church life. The sin of racism continues to plague the Church as it does many elements of American society, he asserts.
“These are behaviors we learned, in some cases acquired in our up-bringing. And so, if we learned it, it is also possible to unlearn it,” Okonkwo said. “Jesus transcended all the cultures of his time, showing us that those who are to pick up His cross to follow Him must also transcend all cultures and colors with their behaviors and attitudes.”
In the Diocese of San Bernardino, Black History Month will be commemorated with a Mass at St. Christopher Church in Moreno Valley on Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. A Mini Gospel Fest will be held Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at St. Anthony Church in San Bernardino. A closing Mass for the month will be held at St. Anthony Church on Feb. 25 at 9 a.m.
Fr. Thorne is an administrator for the National Black Catholic Congress, which dates back to the late 19th century. The organization aims to promote the evangelization of African-American communities and improve their spiritual and physical conditions.
The history of Black Catholics in America reaches back centuries.
“African Americans have been Catholics since the earliest days of the colonies. We’ve been a part of the Church since the beginning. We’re not newcomers to the Catholic Church,” Fr. Thorne stressed.
In the 16th and 17th century, Spanish laws freed slaves who converted to Catholicism. Some of these freed slaves and their descendants formed their own settlement in the region that would become Florida.
Meanwhile, in Maryland in the decades before the American Revolution, Jesuit missionaries evangelized black slaves and freed men. Over the centuries, large African-American Catholic populations settled in cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and numerous cities throughout the South.
However, the Catholic Church did not escape the country’s history of racism and segregation – a history that made many Black Catholics feel unwelcome.
“A lot of things came about, like in our (broader) American culture, because African Americans were not welcome,” Fr. Thorne said. In many places, Jim Crow laws and discriminatory practices applied to some parts of the Church, particularly in the South.
Parishes were segregated with separate Mass times or even separate physical parishes for white and black parishioners. Even in parishes where black attendees were welcome, they would sometimes have to sit at the back of the church and receive Communion after the rest of the congregation.
The Knights of Columbus was one major group that pushed for racial equality long before it was socially acceptable.
The Catholic fraternal benefit society was founded in New Haven, Connecticut in 1882, during a time when Catholics faced suspicion and hostility.
When the Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s, its members targeted Catholics along with blacks and Jews. The Klan burned crosses to protest the presidential run of Catholic – and Knight of Columbus – Al Smith.
Meanwhile, Catholic groups specifically serving the African-American population had also formed. The National Black Catholic Congress first gathered in 1889. The Knights of Peter Claver, a Catholic fraternal society for men of color, was formed in 1909 when racism in some parts of the South prevented them from joining the Knights of Columbus.
The society is named after Saint Peter Claver, the patron saint of African Americans. A 17th-Century Jesuit missionary, he ministered to African slaves in Spanish colonies.
The Knights of Peter Claver worked to support various parish, diocesan and community objectives, including ministry and aid to those in need. They worked alongside the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in their aims for the advancement of civil rights, Blackmon said. They also opened auxiliary and junior divisions for women and for youth, and remained open to people of all ethnicities.
“Even while American priests were sent as missionaries to Africa, blacks in the United States were treated as second class citizens all those many decades ago,” recalled Fredron DeKarlos Blackmon, former Supreme Knight and CEO of the Knights of Peter Claver.
“The history of the Knights and our presence in the Church today is an example of how we are many parts, but we are all one Body in Christ,” Blackmon told CNA.
Fr. Thorne said it is important for Catholics to grapple with the history of discrimination within the American Church. With these mistakes, he said, “the only way we’re going to never repeat them is to know them.”
The National Black Catholic Congress provides more information on the history of black Catholics and other resources at its website http://nbccongress.org.