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Handmaids of Mary

On nuns and education.


In November 1889, Daniel Arthur Rudd, editor and chief proprietor of the American Catholic Tribune, the nation’s first newspaper produced for and by Black Catholics, made it plain: the way for white Catholics to “bring the Negro” into the Church was to first pray and then support existing Black Catholic institutions, especially ­those led by Black nuns and laywomen. “Build up to respectable proportions the convents of the Oblate Sisters at Baltimore, St. Louis, and Leavenworth,” Rudd wrote. “Rebuild the Convent of the ­Sisters of the Holy ­Family at New Orleans. Wherever ­there is a Negro school where secular teachers are employed let the teachers be of the race.” At a moment when white Church leaders, especially the Josephites, and ­others ­were conspiring to push Black ­sisters and Black laywomen out of their pioneering ministries and actively suppressing Black vocations to religious life, Rudd’s championing of Black women’s educational leadership—­seen as essential to developing and nurturing ­future “race leaders”—­was an impor­tant intervention. Not only did Rudd, a former slave of the Jesuits in Bardstown, Kentucky, who was fluent in both En­glish and German, declare Black ­women key to the Black Catholic community’s growth, but he also refuted the insidious white Catholic refrain that Black ­people did not want ­sisters of their own race to minister to them. 

Ea­rlier that year, Rudd had or­ga­nized the first meeting of the Colored Catholic Congress to create a national network of Black Catholic leaders to chart their community’s ­future, fight back against Jim Crow segregation, and defend what he believed to be the Church’s ­great potential to attract more African Americans. Among the delegates to the first congress w­ere ­Father Augustus Tolton, the nation’s first self-­identified Black priest, and James Alexander Spencer, a Black educational leader and state legislator from Charleston, South Carolina. Over the next five years, men and w­omen delegates to the Colored Catholic Congresses repeatedly called on Black Catholics and the Church to take the lead in opposing white supremacy and the descending shadow of Jim Crow segregation in the nation. “The Catholic Church alone can break the color line,” Rudd declared in 1891. “Our ­people should help her to do it.” The meeting participants also called on the all-­white hierarchy to eliminate racial barriers in the Church or at least commit equitable resources to its Black constituencies, especially in education. From their collective perspective, the survival and growth of the Black Catholic community hinged on preserving and expanding the Black Catholic educational system, which required supporting Black ­sisters and laywomen in their ministries.

During slavery and immediately following its federal abolition, Black nuns and laypeople—­often in the face of staunch opposition and vio­lence—­ established or staffed many of the first Catholic elementary and high schools freely open to African Americans across the South, including in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Mary­land; St. Louis, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; the Kentucky towns of Bardstown and Louisville; and the Louisiana towns of New Orleans, Donaldsonville, Lafayette, and Mandev­ille. In several instances, the erection of the Catholic schoolhouse preceded the building of the church. In Washington, D.C., for example, the school that seeded the creation of the capital’s first parish for African Americans, St. Martin de Porres (and ­later renamed St. Augustine), was established in 1858, sixteen years before the church’s erection. Similarly, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Sacred Heart Catholic School, called for, funded, and built by the city’s leading Black Catholics in 1909, preceded the construction of the church—­also funded and built by Black Catholics—­and the arrival of the first pastor by a de­cade. In ­these schools, Black ­sisters or Black lay teachers, like Sacred Heart’s legendary Naomi Eleanor Figaro, a former pupil of the ­Sisters of the Holy ­Family, usually ministered to long-­standing Black Catholic populations, who increasingly found themselves ­either subjected to humiliating segregation in or barred from Catholic institutions that the ­labor, sale, and donations of Black Catholics had built. 

As early as 1868, the former slaveholding ­Sisters of Loretto began staffing newly established Black Catholic schools in Lebanon and New Haven, Kentucky. In the 1870s and 1880s, they ­were joined by a handful of other white congregations, including the formerly slaveholding ­Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Kentucky and the ­Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in Kansas (but originally from Kentucky and ­later Nashville, Tennessee), who also began supplying teachers for and establishing separate schools for Black youth across the South and in the Midwest. Meanwhile, other congregations that taught Black youth in some fashion during slavery, in the de­cades immediately ­after slavery, or both—­like the Ursulines and Carmelites in New Orleans and ­Sisters of Charity in Mobile, Alabama—­abandoned the African American apostolate for the next several de­cades. In 1835, ­Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston briefly operated a school for Black youth, before white mob vio­lence and threats compelled Bishop John ­England to order the closure of all schools open to Black ­people. The Our Lady of Mercy Sisters reopened and administered the school in the 1840s before withdrawing from the Black apostolate for the next fifty-four years. In 1867, though, members of Charleston’s Black Catholic community, including legislator James Spencer, founded a school attached to the city’s first Black parish, St. Peter’s, and Black laywomen ran it. In 1902, the Our Lady of Mercy ­Sisters assumed teaching duties at St. Peter’s school and soon opened IC elementary school to accommodate increasing demand. However, the white nuns withdrew from the African American apostolate again in 1917, prompting Black Catholics and then Bishop William Russell, a native of Baltimore, to appeal for Black ­sisters to lead the diocese’s Black schools. Within a de­cade, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who arrived in the fall of 1917, had nearly tripled enrollments at IC alone, and by 1930 opened Charleston’s third Black high school since emancipation.

In addition to helping raise literacy rates, conduct catechetical work, and expand Black educational opportunities, Black-­led Catholic schools regularly produced female and male vocations to religious life. Notably, Black ­sisters, despite constituting less than one ­percent of the national ­sister population, educated and served as spiritual role models for more than half of the first two generations of Black priests, including the first Black Josephite, ordained in 1891, and three of the first four priests produced by the nation’s first all-­Black seminary, run by the Society of the Divine Word in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in 1934. The fourth Black priest of the Society of the Divine Word, ­Father Vincent Smith, was born in Lebanon, Kentucky, in 1894. His ­mother, Mary Eliza Spalding Smith, had been enslaved by the extended ­family of early US bishops and slavers John Lancaster Spalding and Martin Spalding and ­Mother Catherine Spalding, the foundress of the ­Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. According to her obituary, Smith was “highly regarded” by the city’s “white and colored residents,” suggesting that she was also a spiritual leader. Vincent Smith, who ­later became the first Black Trappist monk, also had an aunt, ­Sister Mary Joachim (Rosalia) Spalding, his ­mother’s ­sister, who became a member of the Sisters of the Holy Family and likely also played a role in nurturing his vocation. 

Although Black Catholics’ desire for Black priests never wavered, white ecclesiastical opposition to the substantial development of an African American clergy remained firm, hampering evangelization efforts and leading most African Americans to conclude that Catholicism was “the white man’s religion.” ­After being denied opportunities to lead Black Catholic parishes in New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., despite having vocal Black Catholic support for the assignments, John Joseph Plantevigne, the third Black Josephite priest, raised the alarm at a conference for missionaries held in DC in 1909. “The blood of the Negro boils in resentment of a ‘Jim Crow’ system in the Catholic Church,” he declared. “Negroes have followed their masters into the Catholic Church, but have fallen away in ­great numbers ­because they have not been given an active part in the organic life of the Church. ... The Negro wants Catholic priests, non-­Catholic ­people are accustomed to colored ministers and refuse to enter the Catholic Church ­under white priests.” Sixteen years ­later, in an editorial condemning rampant white Catholic segregation and racism in the North, W. E. B. Du Bois echoed Plantevigne’s critiques: “­Because Catholicism has so much that is splendid in its past, it is the greater shame that ‘nigger’ haters clothed in episcopal robes should do to Black Americans in exclusion [and] segregation . . . all that the Ku Klux Klan ever asked.” Despite steady Black Catholic demand for Black priests, the thirty-­four Black priests ordained to the priesthood in the United States between 1909 and 1946 would be overwhelmingly prevented from leading African American parishes and completely barred from the episcopacy. 

Catholic educational opportunities for African Americans did, however, expand in impor­tant ways. ­Because the Black sisterhoods never had the membership numbers to satisfy the high demand for Catholic schools administered by Black ­sisters and ­because ecclesiastical leaders generally preferred ­sisters rather than laywomen to lead Catholic schools when available, efforts to recruit additional white congregations into the African American apostolate significantly increased. Heightened Vatican attention to the plight of Black Catholics in the United States also fueled select Church leaders’ increased commitment to Black Catholic education. In response to F­ather Joseph Anciaux’s damning 1903 letter to the Holy See outlining the racist mistreatment faced by African American Catholics, for example, Church leaders established the Catholic Board for Mission Work among the Colored ­People in New York City in 1907 to support the African American apostolate. Though often paternalistic in its approach to addressing Catholic anti-­Black racism and restricted to fund­rais­ing, distribution of money, and publicity, the board, led by ­Father John E. Burke, the white pastor of New York City’s historically Black St. Benedict the Moor Church, proved consequential in its support of the Black sisterhoods. The board paid the salaries of several Black ­sisters and ­later offered crucial support to the Black sisterhoods in their fight to gain access to Catholic higher education. The organization also played a leading role in recruiting additional white sisterhoods into the African American apostolate, eventually paying the annual salaries of over two hundred white ­sisters ministering in southern Black communities, including the well-­resourced ­Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament ­under the leadership of Katharine Drexel. 

But the Catholic Church’s financial support of its Black schools always paled in comparison to its support of its white institutions. Nonetheless, the Church came to play a significant role in African American education as Jim Crow matured. In 1916, the Church operated one hundred twelve schools for approximately thirteen thousand Black youth nationwide—­the most schools of any predominantly white religious denomination. By 1920, that number had grown to one hundred forty-four schools for approximately nineteen thousand Black youth, the overwhelming majority of whom ­were southerners. By 1941, ­there ­were approximately forty-five thousand Black youth in some two hundred thirty-seven predominantly or all-­Black Catholic schools, including sixty-four ju­nior and se­nior high schools, with white ­sisters making up more than seven hundred fifty of the one thousand sixty-four nuns teaching in them. When contrasted with the Black Protestant and public educational systems, ­these numbers may seem negligible. However, Black Catholic education constituted a significant threat to Amer­i­ca’s racial status quo, especially in the South. 

In many areas, Catholic schools led by Black and white nuns ­were the first, or among the first, educational institutions open to African Americans and eventually ­were among the earliest to be accredited. In Baltimore and St. Louis, for example, the OSP opened four of the earliest elementary and high schools open to Black ­people. In New Orleans, the SSF in 1867 established St. Mary’s Acad­emy for Colored Girls, which in 1882 became the first secondary school open to African Americans in all of Louisiana. The all-­white ­Sisters of Charity of Nazareth assumed the leadership of the Colored Industrial Institute, Arkansas’s first formal school for Black youth, in 1889. They also led several of the earliest Black schools opened in Kentucky and the first accredited Black high school in Alabama, the Holy ­Family Institute. In many cities and towns, Catholic schools for Black youth ­were also consistently ranked among the highest achieving, drawing interest from within and outside of the Black Catholic community. 

Be­cause Black Catholic schools provided African American parents with additional educational options for their ­children ­under Jim Crow, their physical structures and staffs became frequent targets of racial harassment and vio­lence. In 1881, for example, racist whites in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, drove the SSF out of town ­after only one year of ­running a school at the interracial but segregated St. Joseph’s Church. It would take fourteen years before the African American ­sisters returned to open another school, which thrived and eventually seeded the development of Baton Rouge’s first African American parish, St. Francis Xavier. 

In 1894, local whites in Tampa, Florida, burned down the St. Peter Claver School, Florida’s first Catholic school for Black youth, in the name of white supremacy. In a note left at the scene, the arsonists argued that they had no “ill feeling to the Catholic Church” but objected “to a negro school in the midst of the white & retired resident portion of the city.” The criminals, who went unpunished, also warned that any attempt to rebuild ­there would be met with more vio­lence directed at the Jesuits and two white ­Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary who administered the school, as well as the town’s other Catholic churches. While the school was rebuilt in a Black community, local white opposition to Black Catholic education remained strong. 

In white Catholic communities, violent opposition to Black-­led Catholic schools also manifested. In 1921, OSP members stationed in St. Louis withstood a months-­long terror campaign waged by their neighbors ­after the ­sisters relocated their St. Rita’s Acad­emy and Convent to the affluent and all-­white riverfront community of Carondelet. Neighboring property ­owners, many of them Catholics, sought to evict the ­sisters and their twenty-­four girl students and orphans—­who had to be brought to the house in groups of two and three ­under the protection of two white male escorts—by any means necessary. ­After a failed attempt to have the ­sisters’ renovation permit revoked, Carondelet residents appealed to Archbishop John J. Glennon to have St. Rita’s relocated to a section of town where they would not be “objectionable.” Although Glennon strictly enforced racial segregation throughout the archdiocese, he declined to intervene since the Black nuns had purchased the property via a white surrogate with their own money. Soon thereafter, the ­sisters’ white neighbors resorted to extralegal vio­lence. White youths regularly vandalized the ­sisters’ property, throwing rocks and making obscene gestures. Then an armed white night watchman hired by the OSP members intercepted a white man (believed to be a neighbor) breaking into the convent through a win­dow. ­After the incident, a police detail was assigned to the property to protect the ­sisters and their students around the clock. Although white opposition endured, the Black ­sisters and their acad­emy, which soon became St. Louis’s first Black Catholic high school, remained. 

Be­cause Black Catholic schools ­were almost always interracial spaces (with white teachers and Black pupils, or Black ­sisters and white priests), these institutions posed a unique threat to the racial and religious order of the largely Protestant South, eventually drawing the attention of some of the region’s most power­ful racists. In 1922, for example, Billie Mayfield Jr., an ex-­colonel in the Texas National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan’s candidate for Texas lieutenant governor, called for vio­lence against the “colored convent.” In his newspaper, Col­o­nel Mayfield’s Weekly, he noted that the white priest attached to the Sacred Heart School in Ames, Texas, led by the SSF, “preaches to mixed audiences at Ames” and “gives communion to whites and blacks at the same altar.” He also believed that the SSF ­were instructing white ­children. “I tell you ­people, the effort to Catholicise the colored man is fraught with the gravest danger,” Mayfield wrote. “We ­don’t want any negro Catholics in this country who ­will be subservient to a foreign ruler who believes in social equality.”

Although the “white ­children” at the Sacred Heart School ­were actually mixed-­race ­children from the New York Foundling Asylum, Mayfield’s rage at the perceived social transgression was telling. Had the three SSF members been “mammies” to white ­children or lay maids to the white priest, no white re­sis­tance would have manifested. However, ­because they ­were nuns, educational leaders, and spiritual role models ­free from state supervision, these Black ­women threatened the foundations of segregation. 

A few days ­later, unknown persons placed a note on the rectory door of Father Alexis LaPlante, the white Josephite who headed the Sacred Heart mission in Ames. Signed “K.K.K.,” the letter threatened to dynamite the mission’s school and church and demanded that LaPlante immediately leave town. If he refused, the letter threatened, the writers would tar and feather him publicly. In response, a contingent of armed Black Catholic men from Liberty County stood guard at the Church and convent attached to the school for several weeks. While no physical acts of vio­lence occurred ­toward LaPlante or the SSF, opposition to Black Catholic education remained strong, especially on the state level and from Protestant proponents of white supremacy or anti-­Catholicism. 

Mayfield’s attack on the Sacred Heart School and convent explic­itly linked Catholic evangelization, education, and Black equality. The Klan leader also articulated growing white Protestant fears over expanding Black Catholic education in the South. “No color line in the Catholic Church and eighteen million colored Catholics in the south,” he proclaimed. “What would we be into?” Although the Catholic Church upheld racial segregation in most of its institutions, its social teachings, which affirmed the life and dignity of e­very person, threatened to undermine white domination over Black southerners. ­Because Black Catholic schools also served as the primary vehicles for evangelization in African American communities, attacks on ­these institutions became part and parcel of local, regional, and national campaigns aimed at demonizing and circumscribing the growing Catholic population. A­fter World War I, anti-­Catholic sentiment significantly increased across the United States, spurred by the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, nativist immigration laws designed to severely restrict Catholic immigration from southern and eastern Eu­rope in the 1920s, and acts of overt vio­lence against Catholics, white and nonwhite alike. The vio­lence and laws targeting Catholics in the South ­were also deeply influenced by the centuries-­long campaign of white re­sis­tance to African American education and literacy. 

Thus, southern legislatures began passing bills to authorize state inspection of convents, parochial schools, and other private institutions; to prohibit the carry­ing or drinking of alcohol, including sacramental wine, at churches; to authorize the taxation of church property; to authorize com- pulsory public school attendance for ­children; and to indirectly criminalize Black Catholic education. In Florida, for example, state representatives introduced anti-­Catholic bills in the 1913, 1915, and 1917 legislative sessions, one of which forbade white teachers from teaching Black students, and Black teachers from teaching white students. House Bill 415, signed into law in 1913, provided that violators could be fined up to five hundred dollars and imprisoned for six months. ­Because the bill was not explic­itly anti-­Catholic in its text and was instead widely viewed as a “negro” issue, it failed to elicit any protest in prominent Catholic news outlets. However, its enactment seriously affected the state’s Black Catholic schools, which ­were then exclu- sively staffed by white S­isters. This threat was realized when three white Sisters of Saint Joseph ­were arrested and briefly detained in 1916 for operating their Black Catholic school in Saint Augustine, the formal birthplace of Black and Catholic history in the United States. That same year, a similar law pending in the Georgia state legislature precipitated the establishment of the nation’s seventh African American sisterhood. 

When Georgia state legislator J. B. Way introduced a bill seeking to “prohibit white teachers from teaching in colored schools and colored teachers from teaching in white schools” in 1915, he inadvertently spurred the resurrection of Black female religious life in Savannah. If passed, the mea­sure would have effectively barred African American students from Georgia’s Catholic school system, then staffed solely by white ­sisters. While the crisis could have easily been averted if any of the white sisterhoods teaching in the diocese’s four Black parochial schools had had Black members or sought to welcome vocations among Savannah’s Black Catholic population, none did so. However, ­Father Ignatius Lissner, a member of the Society of African Missions stationed in Augusta, Georgia, concluded that “the future of the mission to the Negro lies in the colored ­sisters, ­brothers, and priests.” 

Seeking to circumvent the impending law, Lissner first asked the Black sisterhoods ­whether they could establish a ministry in Savannah. When neither order had ­sisters to spare, he sought a pious Black laywoman to lead a new Black teaching sisterhood. He traveled across the South, including to Washington, D.C., where a white Marist priest stationed at the Catholic University of Amer­i­ca informed him about Eliza Barbara Williams, then living in the city. A former assistant superior of the suppressed all-­Black Franciscan order in Convent, Louisiana, and a former OSP novice, Williams was working as a domestic, answering the phone and door, for the ­Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at their Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) when Lissner visited her. Williams immediately agreed to lead the new community and offered Lissner her life savings. By October 1916, she had moved to Savannah and begun identifying potential candidates in Georgia, South Carolina, and Ohio. Within a year, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary numbered ten and staffed the St. Anthony School in West Savannah. By early 1923, the Handmaids had also admitted ­women from Kentucky, Mas­sa­chu­setts, New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and the Ca­rib­bean, including Mary Christine Gallavaga (­later ­Sister Mary of the Pre­sen­ta­tion), an African-­descended ­woman raised by the Carmelite nuns in Cuba.

However, the Handmaids’ tenure in Savannah proved short-­lived. While local Black Catholics provided them with provisions, local whites, especially ­sisters, regularly expressed disgust at the reemergence of an order of Black nuns in their midst. Lamenting that no white ­sisters welcomed or visited the Handmaids, Lissner wrote, “As real Southerners they could not believe that a colored ­woman could make a real Religious ­Sister. I was blamed for the ­mistake. ‘It is a shame’ they said. ‘­Father Lissner ­will soon find out his ­mistake. He may give them the veil but what ­will prevent them from stealing chickens and telling lies?’” Local white ­sisters exhibited willful amnesia about the legacy of ­Mother Mathilda Beasley and her Black order, who had helped to inaugurate and sustain Catholic ministries to Savannah’s African Americans. 

The racial antipathies of white Catholics, as well as rampant anti-­Catholic sentiment in the state, ultimately doomed the Handmaids in Savannah. Following a series of ­bitter disputes with Savannah’s bishop, Benjamin Keiley, over Lissner’s proposal for an integrated seminary in the diocese, Lissner departed Savannah in 1920 for Tenafly, New Jersey, to establish his short-­lived seminary ­there. His absence left the Handmaids without a clerical ally, making them increasingly vulnerable to growing anti-­Black and anti-­Catholic hostilities. 

L­ittle information survives about the Handmaids’ forced exile from Georgia, which began in 1921. However, Bishop Keiley, a former Confederate soldier from ­Virginia who held racially derogatory views about African Americans and persons of Jewish heritage, dismissed the Black ­sisters from their teaching positions soon ­after Lissner’s departure and replaced them with white ­sisters.

To support themselves, the Handmaids operated a laundry business at night and begged along the Savannah waterfront on weekends. However, escalating white hostility prompted them to join the growing Black exodus from the state. In 1921, Williams took a small band of Handmaids to Tenafly, New Jersey, to serve as domestics for the priests of the Society of African Missions and seek out a northern mission. During this time, Lissner sought a congregation to assist the Handmaids with their novitiate training. ­After “a few years” of asking ­Mother Katharine Drexel for help, she fi­nally consented to take one Handmaid, Sister Mary Dorothy (Cecilia) Hall, a native of Georgetown, Kentucky, who could pass for white, into the SBS novitiate in Pennsylvania.

Back in Savannah, white hostilities remained high. In a letter to ­Father Lissner dated July 27, 1923, for example, Williams, who had returned to check on the remaining members of her congregation, lamented the white opposition to Lissner’s plan to assign Joseph John, the first Black alumnus of Saint Anthony’s Mission House to West Savannah. She reported that local whites ­stopped her in the street to express their disgust. “Now we meet the Colored ­Sister,” they caustically remarked. “Next we ­will be meeting the colored priest.” Williams also documented the opposition of the white Franciscan ­sisters who staffed the city’s Black Catholic schools. The Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception specifically complained that it was enough that Savannah already had Black ­sisters and it did not need a Black priest. 

Ultimately, Savannah’s new bishop, Michael J. Keyes, fearful of white opposition, rejected John’s assignment, ­later stating that he wanted mission work among African Americans in his diocese left to willing white priests and presumably only white ­sisters. For Williams, the bishop’s opposition to Joseph must have been infuriating. In 1913, racism in the Josephite order combined with white Church leaders’ refusal to assign Black priests to Black parishes drove her cousin, ­Father John Joseph Plantevigne, insane and led to his early death at age forty-­two. A de­cade before John’s death, his brother, Albert LeForest Plantevigne, who left the Catholic Church to become a Congregationalist minister, had been lynched by whites for opening a Black school in Point Coupee, Louisiana. Keyes’s opposition to Black-administered education and Black priests in Savannah, then, was terrible déjà vu for the Black foundress. Voicing her frustration to Lissner, Williams wrote, “The Japa­nese ... Italians ... Chinese ... Africans have priests. Why can’t the American Negroes?” For Williams and other African American Catholics, the fate of Black Catholics remained uncertain if white religious with minimal commitments to racial justice continued to be in charge of the African American apostolate. But ­there was nothing she could do. 

By the close of 1923, Williams relocated the remainder of the Handmaids to New York City to minister to Harlem’s expanding southern Black mi­grant and immigrant communities. ­There the ­sisters took over a property left to the Church to become the city’s first Black Catholic nursery, ­later named St. Benedict the Moor. Soon thereafter, they began teaching at the all-­Black St. Benedict the Moor School in lower Manhattan and opened a food pantry and soup kitchen on Staten Island. In 1930, the Handmaids affiliated themselves with the Third Order of Saint Francis, becoming the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary and established St. Mary’s, their first primary school for Harlem’s African American and Ca­rib­bean immigrant youth, in their convent. In 1941, the ­sisters assumed the administration of Harlem’s newly established St. Aloysius Catholic School and cemented the foundation of Black-­administered Catholic education in the archdiocese of New York City. 

While segregation and exclusion persisted in the Church, the successful accreditation of schools led by Black ­sisters and the expansion of ­these institutions outside of the South undermined the practices of white supremacy within Catholic bound­aries in significant ways. Black ­sisters’ desegregation victories in Catholic higher education and their commitment to producing race leaders trained to chip away at racial exclusion also left the Church’s segregation practices and policies on more unstable ground as Americans returned from World War II. 

A­fter 1945, assaults on segregation would intensify both within and beyond Catholic bound­aries. As the Church expanded its “missionary” efforts in the African American community and assumed a leading role in the fight against communism, its segregationist practices increasingly became moral and po­liti­cal liabilities. The Second ­Great Migration of African Americans out of the South also had a monumental impact on the Church. While the OSP and SSF joined the migration, an even greater number of white ­sisters entered the African American apostolate as white lay Catholics abandoned their inner-­city parishes and schools to escape integration. Tens of thousands of southern Black mi­grant ­children and first-­ and second-­generation Ca­rib­bean immigrant children entered ­these institutions, propelling not only African American conversion rates but also an explosion of Black vocations to religious life. 

Shannen Dee Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. This article is excerpted from “‘Nothing Is Too Good for the Youth of Our Race,’” in her book Subversive Habits, published in March by Duke University Press.

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