Black, Celibate, and Feminist? Black Catholic Nuns and the Politics of Self-Determination in the American South in Slavery and Freedom

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:20 AM
Crystal Ballroom A (Hilton Atlanta)
Shannen Dee Williams, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Black women and girls have embraced the religious state in the U.S. Catholic Church since at least 1812. Because longstanding practices of racial segregation restricted African-American female religious life to participation in the nation’s historically black sisterhoods, the history of black Catholic nuns in the United States is overwhelmingly southern. It is also marred by routine experiences of humiliation, isolation, and violence.

Although the refusal to recognize the sanctity of black women’s bodies was a cornerstone of white supremacist ideology and the social regimes of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, very little scholarly attention has been paid to the politics of religious life for black women and girls in the Jim Crow South. As a consequence, the radical dimensions of their entry into U.S. Catholic religious life have gone largely unexamined.

This paper contends that embracing the religious state was a radical and arguably feminist act for black women and girls whose opportunities for social, political, and economic advancement in the secular world were severely circumscribed. Although they could not access formal power in the Church due to their race and sex, black sisters, like their male counterparts, represented a serious threat to white supremacy. By consecrating themselves to God in a society and Church that deemed all black people immoral, black sisters provided a powerful refutation to the racist stereotypes used by whites to exclude African Americans from the ranks of Catholic religious life and U.S. citizenship rights. Moreover, by dedicating their labors to the educational and social uplift of the neglected black Catholic community, black sisters forced the U.S. hierarchy to acknowledge, if only nominally, the existence of its African-American constituency and laid the critical groundwork for the great expansion of the black Catholic educational system and the larger African-American apostolate in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.