Black Catholics in a White Church: Negotiating Racial Exclusion in Chicago

AHA Session 272
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Cecilia A. Moore, University of Dayton
Cecilia A. Moore, University of Dayton

Session Abstract

When African Americans began migrating en masse to Chicago in the 1910s, they found a city in the midst of racial flux. The Catholic Church, which counted approximately half of the city’s residents among its faithful throughout the twentieth century, shaped this change as it shifted from being an ethnic or multiracial institution to a “white” institution. Black Catholics, some cradle Catholics but many of them converts to the faith who were drawn by the schools, a theology that dignified all people, and the European-style worship, found themselves in the midst of a church structure that increasingly adopted Jim Crow. Despite the Church’s universal theology, the mostly-white hierarchy and many of the urban faithful rejected African Americans as neighbors and did not want to worship alongside them. These racial dynamics in urban Catholicism were shaped by parish boundaries, the intersection of white Catholics’ religious commitment to particular places that they manifested by buying houses, centering their lives around their parish’s rhythms, and resisting black (mostly Protestant) neighbors. The Church’s racial exclusion was never monolithic, as black (and white) Catholics, loyal to the Church, destabilized it and white Catholics wanting to determine African Americans’ place struggled to maintain it.

This panel brings together four papers that explore the ways black Catholics negotiated these racial boundaries in Chicago across the twentieth century. In 1917, at the same moment that he was trying to Americanize white ethnic parishioners, Archbishop George Mundelein segregated African Americans into their own parish. Timothy Neary considers way black Catholics and white clergy and white religious sisters interacted within and responded to this segregated context, which shaped much of black Catholicism in the city. By the 1930s, some black Catholics organized to hold the Church up to its universal theology. Karen Johnson explores the cost and benefits of these leaders’ decision to leave their segregated context, and take a gamble, seeking and then submitting their organization to white priests outside the archdiocese to help them seek justice. Between 1940 and 1970, as several white sisterhoods expanded their ministries to include African Americans, the number of black vocations to female religious life. Shannen Dee Williams considers the ways white sisterhoods resisted integration as well as how white priests and black women and girls sought to break down the barriers. By the late 1960s, some black and white Catholics had embraced Black Power’s critiques of American society, applying them to the Church. Matthew Cressler focuses on Catholics’ complicated responses to Black Power in this period to show how it challenges historians to rethink what constitutes “American Catholicism.” Together, these papers show the complicated interactions between black and white Catholics, laypeople, nuns, and clergy, and non-Catholics, in Chicago, the city whose laypeople became known for their activism and role in shaping the church. They invite us to consider how race and religion shape one another and the urban context.

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