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Beauty All Around Me – Wolf, Bear, Bison Mural

Subversive Habits: Black Nuns & Black Power

(One in a series of posts about Shannen Dee Williams’ 2022 book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns In The Long African American Freedom Struggle.)

For many Black sisters it wasn’t Dr. King’s assassination that was the last straw; it was the racist reaction of the white Catholics they lived and worked with. When Sr. Joyce Ruth Williams, OSB, who had single-handedly desegregated her community 20 years earlier, and endured countless racist slights in the intervening years with the help of her deep faith “…that the Church’s social teachings would eventually prevail over the sin of racism…“, announced King’s death to her students (all of them white) at St. Cloud’s Cathedral High School, “…after a long and uncomfortable pause, a male student stood and declared, ‘Well that’s one down, how many more to go?!“. (pp. 167-168)

From such experiences arose the National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC).

“The formation and growth of the NBSC in the late 1960s and early 1970s reveal how a cadre of Black Catholic nuns committed to Black liberation seized the opportunity created by the rebellions that swept the nation following King’s assassination. Determined to save their church’s moral credibility and to become ‘relevant’ in the Black revolution, NBSC members developed a new collective voice, style, and platform for Black Catholic sisters to demand racial justice in their church and society at large. Drawing on their foremothers’ history and publicly testifying about their lived experiences of racism and sexism, these ‘new Black nuns’ unapologetically embraced Black Power as a Christian demand and forged a Black woman-centered theology that positioned Black sisters in the vanguard of the changing freedom struggle—and rocked the Church in the process.” (p. 169)

Spurred on by the racist reactions of many of her white sisters and encouraged by the support of her superior, RSM Sr. Patricia Grey made her way to Detroit and talked her way into the first meeting of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. Over 1/3 of the nation’s 177 Black Catholic priests attended. The majority, protective of their priestly and male privileges, opposed the 25 year-old nun’s call for the caucus to include (the far more numerous) Black nuns.

So she went back to Pittsburgh and did it herself, organizing the NBSC’s founding conference and securing the endorsements of the president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, her local bishop, and her own superior who offered the used of Mount Mercy College for the week-long gathering August 17-23, 1968.

It’s an organizing maxim that “the action is in the reaction“, and there were all sorts of reactions to Sr. Grey’s call for Black sisters to come together. Among them:

  • over 2/3 of the mother superiors to whom Grey sent invitations never responded;
  • of those that did, 1/3 “had no Black sisters to send“;
  • others were hostile and accused Grey of “attempting to polarize the Catholic community along racial lines“;
  • a few replied that their only Black sister had left religious life in the wake of King’s assassination;
  • for Black sisters who’d suppressed their racial identity as part of the cost of joining their predominantly white communities, the invitation stirred up a mix of conflicting emotions;
  • 3/4 of the nation’s Black nuns belonged to historically Black sisterhoods; those communities had their own conflicting reactions;
  • the Afro-Creole leaders of the FHM and SSF each allowed only two members to attend;
  • by contrast, the OSP sent 29 sisters (the largest delegation), and the predominantly white SBS sent 27;
  • white sisters active in racial justice ministries had mixed reactions, some critical and still unwilling to accept Black sisters as equals. (pp. 177-184)

At the first NBCS, “more than 155 Black Catholic sisters representing 79 congregations, 45 cities, the US Virgin Islands, the Bahamas,…Uganda and Kenya” gathered representing “a diverse spectrum” of Black sisterhood: cradle Catholics and converts, teachers, college professors, hospital administrators, and nurses, ranging in age from the late teens to the early sixties. (p. 182)

One of their first and most important decisions was to exclude white observers from most (not all) sessions of the conference. It was, I think, partly because of this decision that they were able to end the gathering as powerfully as they did, birthing a new organization: “(T)he delegates decided to form an institution from which to launch a national program of social justice and awareness led by Black sisters. They voted overwhelmingly to make the NBSC a permanent organization with an annual conference, established four regional divisions, and elected nine sisters to a executive board, three seats of which were reserved for representative from the Black congregations. The delegates also unanimously elected Grey to serve as the first president.” (p. 185)

In the wake of the NBSC’s successful founding, the reactions continued to ripple outward as sisters went home to their convents, parishes, workplaces, and communities. Again, some examples:

  • first, among Black sisters themselves as they confronted the ways in which by entering religious life they had turned their backs on the Black community “…in soul-crushing ways…“, alienated themselves from Black culture, acclimated themselves to white supremacy, and succumbed to all sorts of ways of dividing themselves one from the other (e.g., Black sisters in white orders looking down on sisters in Black orders, light-skinned sisters looking down on dark-skinned sisters, sisters using their habits and vowed lives to separate themselves from the people they ministered to);
  • second, reporting back to their congregations and challenging their white peers and their more conservative Black elders;
  • becoming savvy in the use of mainstream, Catholic, and Black-owned media to tell their stories of the “new Black nun” and connect themselves with the broader struggle for Black liberation;
  • changing their ministries to participate more directly in the liberation struggle—e.g., joining Black Catholic lay caucuses, leading Black studies clubs, holding antiracism workshops in their convents, joining in the work of secular organizations like SCLC, CORE, the Black Panther Party, and the Montgomery Improvement Association;
  • challenging white sister-allies for their own unexamined racism and, in not a few cases, their hypocrisy in pursuing sexual relationships with Black men (one study reported at least 78 white ex-nuns “expecting children out of wedlock with fathers who were ‘members of underprivileged minority groups’“) after decades of using stereotypes about Black sexuality to exclude Black people from religious life. (pp. 185-191)

By 1970, Williams says, “the NBSC arguably stood in the vanguard of the Black Catholic movement. Headquartered at Mount Mercy College with a full-time staff of six sisters, a secretary, and a printing press, the organization claimed membership of over 350 sisters and ex-sister affiliates. It had a powerful media platform and the unconditional support of Pittsburgh leader Mother Thomas Aquinas Carroll, who the following year was elected president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious…. (T)he NBSC served as the model for both Las Hermanas, a racial justice organization of Chicana and Latina nuns, and the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association….” The NBSC had also built close alliances with the wider Black liberation movement, including with leaders such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, Dr. Vincent Harding, Prof. James Cone and Rev. C. T. Vivian. (pp. 193-199)

Black sisters made their own contributions to Black theology, linking celibacy to the freedom struggle. “In declaring celibacy a radical act of Black liberation, NBSC members powerfully challenged the masculinist ethos of certain segments of the Black protest community that regarded Black women as able to contribute through motherhood. In demonstrating themselves to be formidable leaders in the Catholic fight for racial justice, they also challenged the misogyny and sexism of many of their male counterparts….” (p. 198)

“But just as the NBSC was finding direction and expanding its reach, support for transformative racial change in the Church began to drop…. White allies in the Church increasingly became endangered species. Progressive white priests and sisters who had supported the Black Catholic movement also departed religious life in droves—often in protest against rising racial and political conservatism in the Church. (Many Black sisters and priests left for similar reasons.) Some Black Catholics remained skeptical of the utility of Black Power and opposed the outspokenness of some Black priest and sister leaders.” (p. 199)

Morning Song – Percolatin’

Here’s Willie Mitchell and the house band from Memphis’ Hi Records “Percolatin'” to get your Monday started right. (Do the young folks even know what a percolator is?)

Morning Song – Don’t Move My Mountain

As you listen Cyril Neville’s “Don’t Move My Mountain”, the first thing you hear is how intimately Neville knows the blues. He hasn’t just played this music for several decades; he’s inhabited it, lived it as naturally as breathing.

The same is true for how he sings it. It’s the voice of a man who’s been talking with God on a daily basis—through good times and bad—for a long, long time. He’s having the kind of prayer-conversation you can have when everything’s on the table and you know there’s nothing you could say or do to make the Other Party leave or give up on you.

Morning Song – Happy Holiday Blues

Guitarist Joe Pass spent most of the 1950s in and out of prison on drug (mostly heroin) convictions, and the 1960s rebuilding his career as one of the finest sidemen in jazz. In the early 1970s he hit his stride, releasing over 50(!) albums of his own—in addition to his side work—in the last two decades of his life.

“Happy Holiday Blues” is from 1992’s Six String Santa album, recorded with his impeccably tight and swinging quartet. Around here it never fails to bring a smile to people’s faces.



Noted Without Comment – Artist Statement #3

Subversive Habits: Black Sisters, The Second Vatican Council, & The Fight For Civil Rights

(One in a series of posts about Shannen Dee Williams’ 2022 book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns In The Long African American Freedom Struggle.)

I once heard an interviewer ask Taylor Branch why he wrote his Parting The Waters biography of Dr. King when so many had already been published. He replied (paraphrasing), “I remember growing up in Atlanta at that time and the feeling I had of waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘The world might have changed overnight’ and often enough, it had. The Freedom Riders. The lunch counter sit-ins. The March on Washington. Selma. All these things that were previously unimaginable suddenly came into being, and whole new worlds of possibilities opened up. And I wanted to write a book that captured that sense of excitement.”

For Black Catholic nuns in the 1960s that sense of the world (repeatedly!) changing overnight, was amplified by the Second Vatican Council and the changes it wrought as the world’s Catholic bishops struggled to discern “the signs of the times” and how the Church ought to respond. In evaluating the role of Black nuns during this phase of the freedom struggle, Williams concludes, “Black sisters were only a minority of the nuns who joined civil rights organizations and demonstrations during the mid-1960s…(but) their efforts resulted in towering achievements and in some cases forced their congregational leaders and peers to adopt more progressive stances on racial justice in the years before and after the pivotal Selma protests.” (p. 136)

Williams documents how the “Till Generation”—those young people who’d seen the photograph of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse in their parents’ subscriptions to Jet magazine—provided the shock troops for the direct action civil rights movement in convents as well as in the streets:

  • At age 19, Patricia Grey joined and desegregated the previously all-white Pittsburgh Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1960;
  • After her family desegregated St. Gabriel’s parish in northwestern Washington DC in 1953, and after every white teaching sisterhood in the DC area rejected her application, Angela White entered the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati in 1955;
  • After leading her Black Catholic high school’s participation in Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade, 18 year-old Patricia Haley joined the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and “led a one-woman campaign to have her congregation desegregate its dining halls and the water fountains for its lay workers.” (pp. 142-150)

“I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.” That’s what Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, SSM—one of only two Black Catholic nuns (Sr. Barbara Moore, CSJ was the other) allowed by their superiors to respond to Dr. King’s call for religious leaders to join him—said at a press conference in Selma in March of 1965. It is as good a one sentence summary of the history and mission of Black Catholic nuns at that singular moment in US history as you will find. (p. 135)

Selma proved to be a catalyst for Black sisters—who’d been desegregating Catholic convents, parishes, schools, and hospitals for decades—to take their faith “into the streets”, which they did in solidarity marches in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities across the nation.

It was also a catalyst for hundreds of white sisters. “Before (Selma), most white sisters had routinely shunned that work, considering it beneath them, and as a rule ostracized sisters, white and Black who labored in African American communities. However, after Selma and Vatican II’s call to social justice activism, a significant portion of white sisters changed their public postures. Those who participated in the Selma protests found the experience transformative. As School Sister of Notre Dame Margaret Traxler remarked, ‘After Selma, you can’t stay home again.'” (pp. 157-158)

In October 1965, the bishops at Vatican II approved Perfectae Caritatis, a document addressed to religious orders. “In addition to mandating that congregations undertake a substantial self-study of their communities, including their original charisms, (it) encouraged orders to reimagine all facets of their life, including religious garb, living arrangements, religious observance, and enclosure, in order to become effective agents of change in the modern world.” (p. 160)

The Black sisterhoods immediately began the work of renewal, with Mother Marie Anselm Duffel declaring that “SERVICE FIRST! SERVICE NOW! SERVICE ALWAYS!” (a play on Gov. Wallace’s demagoguery) would be the Sisters of the Holy Family’s new rallying cry. “By 1967, OSP and SSF members had integrated all-white Catholic school faculties in Florida, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania; participated in sister-exchange programs with white orders in Pennsylvania; and worked in inner-city apostolate programs in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, and Baltimore.” (pp. 160-162)

“Even as they more formally entered the public fight for racial justice, Black sisters continued to blaze trails in Catholic higher education,” earning doctoral degrees, integrating college and university faculties from Montana to Louisiana, opening Mount Providence Junior College in Cathonsville, MD. Sr. Mary Antona Ebo went from marching at Selma to running St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, WI, becoming the first Black nun to run a US hospital. (p. 162-163)

At the same time, growing Black leadership and activism pushed up against the solidly built walls of racism in the US Catholic Church. “Even whites active in the racial justice apostolate routinely failed to address individual and structural racism in the Church in meaningful ways…. (M)ost programs placed white sisters with little experience working among African Americans or little knowledge of African American history into racial justice initiatives. Many white sister-leaders in the racial justice apostolate and in Black schools expressed disdain for calls for Black power and self-determination, which further demonstrated the inherent limitations of these white-led initiatives. Indeed, white sisters’ newfound interest came off as hypocritical, insincere, and dangerous.” (pp. 164-165)

“(T) soul-chilling assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would prompt many Black Catholics to openly question whether even sincere white Catholics ministering to Black communities had the moral capacity to bring about the necessary changes. While Vatican II reforms had revealed that Black sisters had a rightful place on the front lines of the public struggle for racial justice, King’s assassination set the stage for the emergence of a new kind of Black religious sister—one who proved willing to risk it all, including arrest and defection from religious life. to expose the depths of white supremacy in female religious life and rid white Catholic America of racism once and for all.” (p. 166)

Morning Song – When The Children Sing

It is the long and firmly held position of this little blog that: 1) the kids are all right, and 2) one of the finest ways to remind yourself of this soul-and-sanity-restoring fact is to go to your local public school, as veteran bluesman Keb’ Mo’ says, “When The Children Sing”. And you’ve got a perfect opportunity in the next couple of weeks with the welcome arrival of the brief and joyous holiday concert season.

I don’t know when Keb’ Mo’ wrote this modest and contented song with the late Mac Davis, but I’m going to guess it was not long before Davis died in 2020, just a few months after Mr. Moore released “When The Children Sing”. It’s a song written by two men who’ve seen and done a lot, some of which they wish they hadn’t. And now, the lyrics imply, with their hard-earned wisdom they expend some amount of energy “one day at a time” trying to make sure they don’t add any more needless regrets to their lives. Watching and listening to the children helps.

“Well I’m sitting here rocking in my old rocking chair,

Now I’ve got no worries and I’ve got no cares,

It’s great to be alive and to be free,

There is love in the air and harmony,

When the children sing….”

Beauty All Around Me – Cultural Center Floorboards

Not all the art is on the walls….

Subversive Habits: The Struggle To Desegregate White Sisterhoods After World War II

(One in a series of posts about Shannen Dee Williams’ 2022 book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns In The Long African American Freedom Struggle.)

Throughout the early 20th century, Catholic female religious orders founded by Europeans and European-Americans were as thoroughly segregated (if not more) as the rest of American society. “The anti-Black admissions policies and practices that systematically barred women and girls of African descent from entering white and white ethnic US sisterhoods had permitted only 11 documented exceptions between 1900 and 1944, with all but one involving candidates who could pass for white or were racially ambiguous.” (p. 104)

Among the changes wrought by WW II was Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi, in which he linked the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ with the embrace of “all peoples, whatever their nationality or race.” When, the following year, the Catonsville (MD) Dominicans rejected two Black applicants, three white sisters left and established an interracial monastery in Marbury, AL. It was a watershed moment, the first time in the history of the US Catholic Church that white sisters had acted to create an integrated community. (p. 106)

It was one thing to integrate a contemplative order, devoted to a life of prayer removed from the world. It was exponentially harder to desegregate apostolic communities that worked in the world. “Pioneering Black sisters often had to integrate not only their new order but also its institutions of higher education; other convents, schools, and/or hospitals; the parishes in which their congregations ministered; and the often racially hostile communities and sundown towns in which most Catholic institutions were located…in severe isolation, away from the protection of news cameras and the Black people and institutions that had nurtured their vocations.” (p. 107)

Prof. Williams again emphasizes the broader significance of these pioneering efforts: “Nearly two decades before Black civil rights activists launched their highly publicized ‘kneel-in’ protests at southern white Protestant churches to test their tolerance for integrated worship and desegregate the nation’s ‘most segregated hour,’ scores of young Black women and girls began battling for racial equality and justice in some of the oldest strongholds of white supremacy and racial segregation: white-run Catholic convents and their affiliated institutions.” (p. 107)

The desegregation of white apostolic communities began in 1946 in St. Louis with the Sisters of St. Mary (SSM) and built upon the previous work of Black and interracial Catholic protests against segregation during the interwar period, which had already resulted in converting St. Mary’s Infirmary into “the nation’s first Catholic hospital and nursing school for African Americans.” Despite that work, racist attitudes and practices remained deeply embedded in the leadership and membership of the SSM and the relative handful of other white sisterhoods that opened their doors to Black applicants.(p. 108-112)

The Society of the Divine Word’s publication, St. Augustine’s Messenger, played a role analogous to The Negro Motorist Green Book, compiling and regularly updating a list of religious congregations open to receiving “qualified Negro applicants.” (p. 113)

Meanwhile, some of the religious orders most actively ministering in Black communities—the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the Maryknoll Sisters, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament—continued to resist, actively and passively, admitting (let alone welcoming) Black women and girls into their sisterhoods. (pp. 114-120)

Williams takes note of the relative handful of white Catholics who pressed for desegregation within the Church. “In early December 1946, for example, Fr. John F. O’Brien, a white assistant pastor at Harlem’s Church of the Resurrection, sent a brief missive to the provincials of all the white orders ministering in the NYC metropolitan area. While O’Brien simply asked each congregation for the admission requirements, he concluded with a searing moral question. ‘Is the order Catholic enough to accept colored vocations? I am in a colored parish and am immediately concerned with this information.” (p. 116)

Despite having over a decade to absorb the teachings of Mystici Corporis Christi, the response by many white Catholics—from cardinal-archbishops to Christmas-and-Easter parishioners—to Brown v. Board of Education was the same as that across much of the South in civil society: massive resistance. It took the US Catholic bishops four years to endorse the ruling. Less than half of white Catholic religious orders surveyed by Fr. Raymond Bernard, SJ in the 1950s had policies of admitting Black candidates. Not all those that said they did, did in fact. (pp. 121-122)

The means employed to avoid accepting Black sisters were ingeniously devious. Some congregations began requiring photographs as part of the application process. Others created special voting rules, allowing the entire community instead of just the leadership council to vote whether to admit Black women as novices. Still others asked the white potential classmates of a Black candidate whether they would accept her in the convent. Still others required additional medical and psychological tests in the hopes of discouraging Black applicants. Some orders had quotas, limiting the number of Black novices they would admit. Williams bluntly concludes the obvious: “anti-Black admissions policies and practices of white congregations…result(ed) in the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of Black female vocations and difficult journeys through religious life for those Black candidates admitted.” (pp. 122-126)

Those Black women whose unswerving commitment to their vocation sustained them through these racist obstacle courses, and helped them succeed in entering religious life found that “massive resistance” continued within the walls of the convent and the schools, hospitals, and parishes where they carried out their ministries. Novices endured everything from the lack of Black hair-care products to statements from older sisters like “Black people go to nigger heaven together with the dogs and other animals”. (pp. 126-127)

“For example, when Dolores Harrall…became the first US-born Black person to enter the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) in New England in 1955, several of her white counterparts made it a point to show her during community meals that they would not touch or use the same cups, plates, and utensils she did. Others regularly burned Harrall’s bedsheets and mattresses rather than use them after she did. During community swimming activities, Harrall also routinely suffered the indignity of watching her white counterparts depart the pool immediately after she entered.” (p. 128)

That wasn’t the experience of every Black women who entered a white religious community in the 1950s, but many “faced routine physical bullying, deliberate ostracism, their white counterparts’ refusal to use the same bathroom facilities as they did, and racist verbal taunts. [-snip-] Some…were also denied the opportunity pursue higher education by their superiors. Instead, they were relegated to in-convent domestic labor like cooking, ‘hidden in laundries,’ or forced to serve as telephone operators.” (p. 129)

All of that was before Black nuns went out into the world to teach and to nurse and to work in parishes, and opened themselves to similar abuse—or worse—from white people (most of them Catholics) they ministered with and to. (pp. 130-132)