June 19, remember the black women who shape our church

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Black women are strong – strong in body, strong in determination and strong in faith. From the plantation to the White House, black women have been the backbone of America. They have been preachers, writers, freedom fighters, and more, and yet, as Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespectful person in America is the black woman. The least protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman. Historically, both as a nation and as a church, we have limited our vision to see only white leaders, male leaders, as those who have made us strong. This year, however, as I prepare to celebrate the end of slavery on June 16, I remember the black women who have contributed so much to our church and our nation.

When news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the ears of black women in the 1860s, many of them literally “donned the mantle of freedom” by dressing in fancy white women’s dresses, which they claimed as their own after years of unpaid work. In his book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Daily Resistance in the Southern Plantation (The University of North Carolina Press) Stephanie MH Camp describes a black woman named Peggy who took pink ribbons and bows from a white woman’s closet and tied them in her children’s hair to show her “pride of their freedom. Emancipated black women ventured boldly into the Union camps, where they showed off their newfound freedom and dignity. Camp points out that at the time, many white people viewed these incidents as petty “tantrums, but in reality they were joyful acts of courage, tangible expressions of exuberant justice and freedom.

Sister Marie Antona Ebo. Library of Congress.

Later in the 19th century, it was black women who organized the first June 19 festivities. In his book Emancipation betrayed (University of California Press), Paul Ortiz describes black women who became memory keepers, community historians who used their bodies in historical reenactments and June 19 parades to stage both the degradation of slavery and the dignity of freedom. Black women were making food, designing and sewing costumes, and planning behind-the-scenes events for June 19. They also stood up with black men and delivered bold speeches that celebrated the history of freedom.

Over the years, black women continued to bravely venture into new spaces that were previously denied them, but often their names were forgotten. Most everyone knows Amelia Earhart, one of the first (white) female aviators – but how many of us have heard of Bessie Coleman, Earhart’s contemporary and the first black female pilot? “The air is the only place free from prejudice,” Coleman said in one of her many speeches where she spoke out for the cause of black rights. Then there is Madam CJ Walker. While most of us have heard of Elizabeth Arden, the white woman who built a cosmetics empire in the early 20th century, do we know Walker, who built a similar business around hair products and is recognized in The Guinness Book of World Records as the first self-made female millionaire? Walker was also a social activist who worked on behalf of other black women. “I don’t just make money for myself,” she said. “I strive to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”

We could go on this list, pitting unknown black women against their more famous white counterparts, but I think I’ve made my point. As Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, writes in a 2018 article in the Guardian, we “can tell a lot about a people, about a nation, by what they judge important enough to remember.”

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Sadly, too many American Catholics have not appreciated the rich heritage of faith that black women have left us. We did not deem them important enough to remember, and their names were forgotten, buried under the more familiar names of countless white men. A few, however, still shine their light for us, if we stop long enough to see.

sister-thea-bowman
Sister Thea Bowman. Courtesy of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

In the early 19th century, for example, 15-year-old Anne Marie Becraft, the daughter of free black parents, founded one of the first schools open to black children in our nation’s capital. It later became the first Catholic day and boarding school for black girls. Becraft’s school became a visible standard for justice in a town where slavery and racism still thrived.

After the Civil War, Frances, Charlotte and Katherine Rollin, black Catholics from South Carolina, were valiant and outspoken in their fight for women’s rights. “We ask for suffrage not as a favour, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the fact that we are human beings, and as such holders of all human rights,” Charlotte wrote in 1871.

When Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1965 suffrage protest in Selma, Alabama, a black Catholic woman was there – Mary Antona Ebo, a Franciscan sister of Mary. “I’m here because I’m a Negro, a nun, a Catholic,” she said, “and because I want to testify.” Ebo continued to lead the battle for civil rights throughout his long life. (She died in 2017 at the age of 93.)

Finally, let’s not forget Thea Bowman, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, civil rights activist, teacher, scholar, preacher and singer. “What does it mean to be black and Catholic?” Bowman asked. “It means I bring myself, my black self. Everything that I am. All I have. Everything I hope to become. I bring all my history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African American song and dance, my gestures and my movement, my teaching, my preaching, my healing and my responsibility as a gift to the church.

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Church records across the South testify to the thousands of black Catholic women whose faith and hard work led to the growth of anti-slavery Catholic sentiment. Black women also built some of our first Catholic parishes, schools, orphanages and retirement homes open to blacks. Others founded and became members of the first Catholic sororities in the modern world that fully welcomed black women, including the Oblate Sisters of Providence (founded in Baltimore by Mary Elizabeth Lang in 1828) and the Sisters of the Holy Family ( founded in New Orleans by Henriette Delille in 1842). Yet today I find that my church too often forgets these women.

On January 20, 2021, at the Biden-Harris inauguration, another black Catholic woman stood up and spoke out for justice. “We lay down our arms,” ​​Amanda Gorman said, “so we can reach out to each other.” Her presence at this historic moment was a new sign pointing to the potential and promise of black women’s faith and leadership. In a church that, sadly, was the first to officially say that black lives don’t matter, Gorman speaks on behalf of the countless nameless black women who have fought for justice, women who do matter, whose strength and endurance continue to lead us to a richer faith and a more righteous nation.

Too many American Catholics have not appreciated the rich heritage of faith that black women have left us.

“What I really aspire to do,” Gorman said, “is . . . to imagine a way that our country can still come together and can still heal . . . in a way that doesn’t erase or neglect the hard truths that I think America must come to terms with. On this June 16th, may we heed his words. May we be empowered by the memory of black women, named and unnamed, to face the harsh realities of our church and our nation – and may we expand our spiritual vision so that we can see new paths to healing.


This article also appears in the June 2022 issue of US Catholic (vol. 87, no. 6, pages 16-18). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Header image: Celebration of the centenary of the Oblate Sisters of Providence at the Sainte-Françoise convent in 1929. Courtesy of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

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