Black Catholics and White Priests: The Costs of Organizing across Parish Boundaries

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:20 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Karen Johnson, Wheaton College
By the early 1930s, Chicago’s African American population had skyrocketed as black southerners moved to northern cities. Black Catholics, most of them upwardly mobile and drawn to the Catholic Church’s promise of universal brotherhood, found themselves in a double bind. They, like non-Catholic African Americans, found their housing options limited by restrictive covenants, white violence, and white Catholics’ strong sense of parish boundaries. But unlike black Protestant laypeople, who had ministers of their own race, black Catholics had no black priests to advocate them in a Catholic Church that, in practice, segregated them, often against their wishes. Black Catholics first organized themselves, forming Chicago chapters of the national Federated Colored Catholics (FCC), a black protest organization emerging from black Catholics’ 19th century nascent theology of protest. But without black priests, Chicago’s laypeople—many who insisted on remaining in the Church despite its discrimination—found themselves hamstrung in their ability to move the Church toward justice.

This paper uses the untold history of the Chicago branch of the Federated Colored Catholics (FCC) to demonstrate how Chicago’s Catholics looked outside their city for white priest partners to help them change their Church, and outside their faith for black partners, especially with the Urban League, leaving behind the strong tradition of black protest the FCC had represented. Situating the black lay medical doctor Arthur Falls at the story’s center, the paper argues that black Catholics emphasized respectability and crossed parish boundaries, key traits that shaped Catholic involvement in the civil rights movement in the coming decades. It demonstrates that their decision to prioritize maintaining relationships with white priests by following the Catholic Action model, however, cost black Catholics their autonomy.