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.