New research spotlights role of black Catholic nuns in desegregation

Long before the civil rights movement broke racial barriers to public education, black Catholic sisters were quietly desegregating Catholic colleges, universities and normal schools. Through a variety of strategies, black teaching nuns won admittance, opening doors not only to higher education for African-Americans, but also helping turn Catholic elementary and secondary schools into havens of quality education for black children, especially in the South.

It’s a largely untold story. But now a Memphis native, in work that has caught the attention of prestigious historical societies and universities, is bringing it to light.

Shannen Williams, 28, is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University and a graduate of Craigmont High School here. She and others believe that, when finished, her dissertation, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America after World War I,” will be the first significant historical study of African-American Catholic sisters in the 20th century. It will also unearth, as she writes, “a forgotten battlefield of the African-American freedom struggle in which black nuns attempted to forge an alternative path to black liberation through Catholic education.”

Beginning in the 1920s, Catholic schools faced an accreditation crisis. States were demanding advanced training for private school teachers. The Catholic church operated the nation’s largest independent school system, including 144 schools for black children, nearly all in the South, said Williams.

There is important history here. History which is little remembered and in danger of being forgotten. According to the research, the orders of African-American sisters made quality education available in areas where it would not otherwise occur. And they played an important role in overcoming racial segregation in Catholic institutions.

I am glad Ms. Williams was awarded, this year, a Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship from Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. This should allow her to finish her doctoral thesis, and perhaps encourage her to produce it in book form. I would be interested in reading that history. :slight_smile:

Thank you, Abyssinia, for posting this news!

Thanks for posting this.There are probably many americans even Catholics who are completely unaware of the work of black sisters in the United States.It’s time these valiant women recieved recognition for their work.My dad went to St.John’s Catholic School in Hot Springs,Arkansas in the 1920s or 30s. I know he mentioned that there were protestants who sent their children to the school, but i never asked him if there were any black children attending school there, though I’m sure there may have been some black Catholics in the area. Hope this becomes a book, it deserves that honor.

It is very interesting.

No problem!

News Update:

[quote=The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education]Williams told JBHE that several university presses had expressed interest in publishing her dissertation.


This is very interesting, and right up my alley! Thanks!!

Great post and article. Thanks for this.

See also “Black Catholic Sisters in the United States: A Historical Reflection” in the March 2012 edition of In A Word, published by the Society of the Divine Word.

Thank you so much for this information! :slight_smile:

Here is a direct link:

And… two paragraphs from the article by Shannen Dee Williams:

Black sisters were also subjected to white supremacist terror and violence and as a rule ostracized by their white counterparts in religious life well into the twentieth century. Moreover, their numbers remained small for much of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, by founding Catholic schools, orphanages, and nursing homes for African Americans and mentoring a significant portion of the nation’s earliest generations of black priests, black sisters forced the U.S. hierarchy to acknowledge (if only nominally) the existence of its largely neglected African-American constituency and laid the critical groundwork for the creation and expansion of the African-American apostolate in the twentieth century.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the national population of black sisters began to increase substantially. During the first two decades, two additional black congregations were also established. They were the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Heart of Mary of Savannah, Georgia and later Harlem, New York (1916- Present) and the all-black Good Shepherd Sisters (or Magdalens) of Baltimore, Maryland (1922 to 1960s). It would also be during the twentieth century that black, sisters arguably made their most significant and enduring contributions to the fight for racial and educational, justice.

Sadly, the numbers of African-American Catholic sisters has dwindled to about 300 today.

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