As our nation celebrates the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, I thought it might be good to share a little history of African-American Catholics in our country. With the help of noted historian Cyprian Davis, here's a bit of that history.
St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest town in the United States was helped to be founded by both slave and free blacks. Spain actually offered freedom in Florida for slaves who converted to Catholicism.
In 1781, Maryland's black Catholic population grows to 3,000.
A group of Haitian women form the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829 to serve the educational needs of the Haitian population in Baltimore.
In his 1839 apostolic letter, Pope Gregory XVI condemns the slave trade as the "in-human traffic in Negroes." One southern Bishop said that the pope was only referring to slaves coming from Spain and Portugal.
In 1842 Henriette Delille and Juliette Gaudin in New Orleans found the Sisters of the Holy Family. They are the second religious order for black women.
Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853) from Haiti buys his freedom. He goes on to care for the ill with yellow fever and provides shelter for homeless youth. A case for his beautification has been opened in Rome. He would be the first black American saint.
In 1875 James Augustine Healy becomes the first black Catholic bishop. However, he was fathered by a Georgian plantation owner and never identifies with being black.
Daniel Rudd convenes the first black Catholic lay congress in 1889. Daniel Rudd also published a very successful weekly, black Catholic newspaper during the late 1800's.
In 1909, the fraternity of the Knights of Peter Claver is established by the work of Josephite priests as a parallel to the Knights of Columbus. An article taken from The Colored Harvest Vol. VI, No. 2 - March 1910 wrote.
On Sunday, November 7, 1909, in the city of Mobile, Ala., took place the “Initiation” of the first band of forty colored men, the nucleus of a fraternal society, which will be known as “The Knights of Peter Claver.” This is undoubtedly the most important movement for colored Catholics that has taken place for many a day.
The U.S. bishops, despite requests from Rome to act on behalf of blacks during the race riots and lynchings of 1919, avoid the topic at their first annual meeting.
In 1920, the Society of the Divine Word in Greenville, Mississippi, with the blessing of Pope Benedict XV, opens St. Augustine's, the first seminary for blacks.
American bishops, as a unified body denounce racial prejudice as immoral in 1958.
The Davenport Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) is established in 1957. Of it was written in an exhibit at the Putnam Museum that “The CIC is the driving force for Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement."
On Friday, August 23rd, 1963, about 2,000 people participated at a Civil Rights rally at the Bandshell. The rally was a warm up to the “March on Washington” which was to take place the following Wednesday, August 28 and local delegates to the March on Washington were introduced.
Approximately 400 members of the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council gathered at St. Anthony’s Church and marched to the rally. The group was made up of representatives from six Davenport parishes, including the former Mayor of Davenport, Bill Gluba, who was a student at St. Ambrose University.
May God grace us with the moral conviction to continue the fight for racial equality both inside our Church and in the world.