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Fri, 12.26.1000

Black History and Catholicism, an article

*Black Catholicism is celebrated on this date in c 100.  Catholicism in African America comprises Black people, beliefs, and practices in the Catholic Church.  

Catholic Christianity among African descended people has its roots in the earliest converts to Christianity, including Mark the Evangelist, the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, a figure in the New Testament of the Bible; his conversion to Christianity is recounted in Acts 8.  Simon of Cyrene, the man compelled by the Romans to carry the cross of Jesus of Nazareth as he was taken to his crucifixion, and Simeon Niger, one of the "prophets and teachers" in the Church of Antioch. 

Early Church Fathers were also native to Africa, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyprian, and Augustine. Saints Perpetua and Felicity and Saint Maurice (as well as his military regiment), early martyrs, were also African. There have also been three African popes: Victor I, Melchaides (a martyr), and Gelasius I.  The vast majority of these Patristic-era figures resided in North Africa, where various Christian communities thrived until the Muslim conquests of the region. The Muslim takeover of Southern Spain (Al-Andalus) forced a significant Catholic community into North Africa, specifically Morocco; these individuals constituted the Mozarabic tradition.  

There were multiple early Christian kingdoms in Africa, which emerged in Ethiopia (then Aksum). Around this same era, however, there were also three Nubian Christian kingdoms, all of which were conquered and left little trace of their former glory; scholars have since recovered some of their histories. Due to the Chalcedonian Schism in the 5th century, however, most of this Eastern (African) Christianity became divorced from Catholicism very early on.  Before the dawn of the Middle Passage, Catholic Christianity in West Africa, the region that would produce virtually all of the individuals ending up in America as slaves, was primarily limited to converts from early white-European missionary contact, especially in the Kongo region. Roughly a century before Europe made contact with what would become the United States, the Portuguese entered the Kongo and began to make converts and engage in trade; there was also some limited slave trading between the European power and their new African colleagues.   

Estevanico, the first known Black Catholic in America, was from Morocco, North Africa.  He was a guide and interpreter for Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Estevanico came to Texas about 1528. When Cabeza de Vaca's ship was wrecked, Estevanico led the survivors inland. One by one, they died. Estevanico learned much from the Spanish clergy, his linguistic and medical skills enabled him to live among Indigenous Natives for eight years; he was killed in 1539. Though Estavanico's life was short and his immediate influence was not large, his historic role as the first Black Catholic in Texas is significant. The area he traversed later comprised the state's busiest slave ports, as well as the port in which emancipation was announced, Galveston. 

His numerous successors over the next three centuries are largely nameless. Aside from his influence, Peter Claver, a Black from Verdu, Spain, became a Patron Saint.  Although some Black slaves became Catholic under the influence of their owners, it is very likely that some Blacks were Catholic in their native Africa and brought their faith with them to this country. The Catholic religion had flourished in Africa since biblical times; the New Testament records an apostolic incursion into sub-Saharan Africa. Though Europeans largely thought of slaves as pagans, some slaves may have converted their masters to Catholicism.   Louisiana has been a major source of Black Catholics. The Catholic French in that state baptized slaves as early as 1699.

Before the American Civil War, 60 percent of the country's Black Catholics lived in Louisiana; in the early 1990s, two-thirds of the South's Black Catholics still lived there. During the Civil War, large numbers of slaves, many Catholic, were brought from Louisiana. Later, other Black Catholics migrated from Louisiana.  The Texas mission at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the earliest known such group in the state, was founded in 1849. In 1840 plantation owner Malcolm Spain, a Catholic Mississippian, brought a large group of Blacks to the Brazos River country in Washington. The mission, now known as Blessed Virgin Mission, is part of the Catholic Diocese of Austin and serves about forty families. 

Further north, in 1854, James Augustine Healy became the first Black catholic priest. Ironically, Augustus Tolton was born in Missouri that year and was ordained to the priesthood on April 24, 1886.  A ministry to Black Catholics in Texas coincided with the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. The council established annual Negro and Indian missions' collections among American Catholics that are still taken and set up a commission to oversee the distribution of funds. In Houston, Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher of Galveston established the first known Black parish in October 1887. He dedicated a small elementary school in the city's Third Ward to educating black children. At the time, nearly 10,500 Houston's estimated 28,000 residents were Black. Over 100 years later, on February 19, 1988, Louisiana native Curtis Guillory, the first Black Catholic bishop in Texas, was installed as auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Galveston/Houston. 

An Irish priest who disliked the fact that Blacks had to sit in the rear of churches founded St. Peter Claver Church in San Antonio in 1888. Nationally, the first National Black Catholic Congress was held in Washington, D.C.  Although Black Catholics in San Antonio were not many, their number grew until, in 1915, there were three predominantly Black churches in the city. In 1889 Holy Rosary Church of Galveston was founded. A community was established in Ames in 1890 when Black Catholics from Louisiana began migrating there. Our Mother of Mercy Church was started there in 1910.  There are currently around 3 million Black Catholics in the United States, and about a quarter of them worship in historically-black parishes, most established during the Jim Crow era as a means of racial segregation.

Others were established in Black communities and merely reflected the surrounding population. At the same time, the most recent congregants came about due to population displacement (White Flight) during and after the Great Migration.  In 1927, a great flood of the Mississippi River sent Blacks fleeing to Crosby, Texas. Because so many of them were Catholic, by 1936, a mission, blessed Martin de Porres, was established for the former Louisianans in Crosby. In 1951, industrial opportunities increased, and many Black Louisiana Catholics moved to Houston and surrounding areas. That year, the Diocese of Galveston had the fifth-largest Black Catholic population among United States dioceses.   Statewide, numerous communities have contributed to the history of Black Catholic parishes in Texas. 

In addition to the Houston-Galveston area, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and several East Texas communities have supported Black Catholic parishes and missions.  Before Vatican II, Black Catholics worshipped in Latin, as did the rest of the Church, not displaying much difference in liturgy or spiritual patrimony. During the 1950s, however, innovators such as Fr Clarence Rivers began to integrate Negro Spirituals into settings of the Mass; this trend eventually blossomed into the so-called Black Catholic Movement during the larger Black Power mood of the late 60s and 70s. 

Some have termed this period the "Black Catholic Revolution" or the "Black Catholic Revolt."  As this newfound Black Consciousness swept up many Black clergies and consecrated religious and laypeople in its wake, Black Catholicism came of age. Entire disciplines of Black Catholic studies emerged, Gospel Mass became a staple of Black Catholic parishes, Black Christian spirituality (formerly seen as Protestant) was also claimed by Black Catholics, and the Black Catholic Church emerged as a significant player in the public and ecclesial life of the larger American Church. 

In 2019, the Most Reverend Wilton Gregory hen the Archbishop of Atlanta was named by Pope Francis as Archbishop of Washington (D.C.), considered by many to be the most important diocese in the country. He is the first African American to hold the post. The appointment was also notable in that archbishops of that see are typically named cardinals, a position no African American has held.   On October 25, 2020, Pope Francis announced that he would indeed name Gregory a cardinal at a consistory scheduled for November 28, which will make him the first Black member of the College of Cardinals.

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