(DT) The Church is Not Yet Dead: An Interview with Dr. Shannen Dee Williams

This post originally appeared at Daily Theology, a partner blog of Hope Sings So Beautiful.  See the original post here.

By John P. Slattery.

Over the last month, I have had the privilege of interviewing, via email, Dr. Shannen Dee Williams, an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.  Williams is currently working on the manuscript for her first book entitled, “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America,” which unearths the forgotten history of black Catholic sisters in the fight to eradicate racial and gender barriers in the U.S. Church and wider American society. When published, it will be the first historical monograph on black nuns in twentieth-century America.

JS: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of the conversation here at Daily Theology.  If you don’t mind, let’s start with your background.  Could you tell me a bit about your own journey, growing up in the Catholic Church?

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams

SW: Growing up, I could count the number of black Catholics that I knew on two hands. They were my mother, my sister, me, the four-member African-American family who attended our suburban and nearly all-white parish, and by 1993, the bishop of our diocese. At some point during my childhood, I became aware of the existence of the two predominantly black Catholic churches in my hometown, and I recall often begging my mother to take us to the “black parishes” on Sunday mornings—especially after we endured some form of humiliation or rejection at our parish. However, my mother always said no stating that the black parishes were too far away from our home and that the people at our parish who refused to shake our hands or always looked at us like we were lost weren’t real Catholics.

For the longest time, I could not wrap my mind around my mother’s staunch loyalty to the Catholic Church, especially since I knew her experiences in the Church had been less than ideal. You see, my mother was in the first class of women admitted to the University of Notre Dame in 1972, and I grew up with a large, extended family that often celebrated the fact my mother was Notre Dame’s first black woman graduate. But, over the years, I watched my mother (who was at St. Mary’s College before transferring to Notre Dame in 1972) cringe every time the fact was mentioned and quickly change the subject. When I finally mustered up enough courage to ask my mother about her experiences at Notre Dame, she simply intimated that it was better left unspoken and immediately tried to change the subject. When I pushed harder, she made it plain that she did not want me to attend Notre Dame for college and then shut down completely.

While my mother has occasionally spoken about her encounters with racism and sexism both within and outside of the Church over the years, her experiences at Notre Dame remain unspeakable, and it breaks my heart to even think about what she had to endure. Indeed, if the narratives of the other courageous men, women, and children who desegregated our nation’s historically white (and in many cases male) spaces offer any insights, I know my mother’s experiences must have been truly horrific, which of course left me fiercely resistant to the idea of remaining in the Church as I left home for college.

But, I stayed—in large part because of my mother’s influence, but also because worshiping in Atlanta’s historically black Catholic parishes during college finally taught me that racism and white supremacy did not have to be a defining part of my church experience. For the first time in my life, I consumed Catholic depictions of Jesus Christ and images of holiness imagined outside of the realm of whiteness, and I was introduced to the Church’s black saints. Homilies delivered by priests, both black and white, more often than not touched on relevant social issues facing the African-American community, and for the first time I truly felt at home in a Catholic Church. It may seem a little crazy to say this, but I actually had to get used to all of the warm smiles and welcomes that greeted me in these black parishes and to the entire church always holding hands during the recitation of “Our Father.” I must admit too that I had to been re-educated on what it meant to be “authentically” Catholic since growing up in a predominantly white parish initially made me uneasy about singing black sacred music and hearing drumming during Mass.

Although those specific African-American cultural traditions were not yet present in the segregated black parishes that raised my mother in the 1950s and 1960s, she had nonetheless been introduced to a Catholicism (nurtured by a vibrant black laity) that could be free of racism. That is why she dared to convert to Catholicism at the tender age of seven and undoubtedly why my Protestant grandparents (who worked tirelessly to provide their children with the best education available to them in Jim Crow Georgia) permitted her to do so despite the racism and sexism present in those spaces.  That is why my mother remains in the Church today, and partly why I do too.

JS: Can you talk more about that last bit…why you remain in the Church today?  More specifically, what does being Catholic mean to you, and does it mean anything different in the specific context of the United States?

SW: Obviously, being Catholic has meant many different things to many different faithful at various moments in church history, and those experiences have always been mediated by a host of social variables, including race, sexuality, ethnicity, color, gender, class, caste, and location.

No person has ever been simply Catholic, and any attempt to discuss or frame Catholicism without acknowledging the great diversity of the Catholic faithful or the intersection of people’s identities is woefully inadequate and perhaps even intentionally insincere.  Indeed, I immediately become suspicious when I hear someone dare to offer the “Catholic” perspective or when self-identified Catholics use their faith to deflect attention away from their undeniably discriminatory behavior.

williams--no-personSo, speaking historically, being Catholic has often meant being a living contradiction of the Word and Catholic social teaching on a host of social and moral issues. For example, the Catholic Church’s central (and indeed leading) role in the development of the transatlantic slave trade and its deep social, economic, and political investments in chattel slavery, segregation, and colonialism throughout the Atlantic world has meant that at any given moment in the modern era there have been Catholics who have unapologetically denied black and brown humanity and violently upheld the right of Europeans and European-Americans to enslave, segregate, defile, denigrate, desecrate, rape, murder, and colonize in the name of Christianity. (Remember, now, thousands upon thousands of European and Euro-American Catholics, including religious orders of men and women, owned and violently extracted the labor of thousands upon thousands of African- and Native American Catholic slaves in the Americas.) In those same moments, there were other Catholics (overwhelmingly those who were enslaved and/or colonized) who took Catholic social teaching and the Church’s creed of universal humanity to heart and courageously fought to make the Church truly Catholic and abolish the formal practices of slavery and segregation.

My journey in the Catholic Church, like my journey as an American citizen, has been frequently peppered with experiences of overt and covert racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. As a consequence, there have been more than a few times when I felt that I needed to leave the Church for my own sanity and survival. Yet, I have refused to abandon my faith or the Church of my birth.

While loyalty to my devout Catholic, African-American mother and attending predominantly black and thoroughly integrated parishes (when able) kept me in the Church through my mid-twenties, my “discovery” of black Catholic history during my doctoral studies at Rutgers cemented my resolve to remain in the Church. It also helped me to understand that black people have never been marginal to Catholic history and that the most authentic expressions of Catholicism have always come from the marginalized and the dispossessed.

U.S. Catholic history, for example, is filled with extraordinary testimonies of African-American faith and resilience in the face of strident white supremacy and unholy discrimination. Everyday I am strengthened by the fearlessness embodied by those African-American Catholics who steadfastly refused to abandon the faith even after they were forced to sit in segregated pews, relegated to the back of Communion lines, or physically thrown out of parishes by white Catholics, religious and lay, solely on the basis of race. The black Catholic children who commuted 25+ miles to attend a parish school that accepted “Negroes” and the hundreds of young men and women who stridently refused to abandon their calls to religious life despite enduring countless rejections by orders with “whites-only” admissions policies remain among the most powerful testimonies of the Catholic faith.

While I remain deeply troubled by the enduring structures of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia in the Church, I also know that the Church has always been more than the bishops, cardinals, and even the saints—especially those were slaveholders, promoted white supremacy, and/or founded religious orders that excluded people of color from membership.

Indeed, when I think of the Catholic faithful, I rarely think of the ecclesial authorities.  Most often, I think of the legions of unheralded black lay women upon whose shoulders the African-American, and one-fourth of the global, Catholic community has historically rested. (Note: Catholics of black African descent make up one-fourth of the global Catholic population.) In the most trying of times, I especially think of Martha Jane Chisley Tolton, the devout Catholic Missouri slave mother who courageously marched her three children (Charley, Augustine, and Anne) to freedom in Illinois just few years after Roger Taney, a well-known defender of slavery and the nation’s first Catholic Supreme Court justice, callously denied the humanity, citizenship, and God-given freedom of Missouri’s most famous slaves, Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and their two daughters Eliza and Lizzie.

williams--when-i-think-LIn the Toltons’ freedom march, they not only rejected the legitimacy of a nation that could justify holding a people in slavery, but also rejected the legitimacy of any articulation and expression of Catholicism that denied black humanity, promoted white supremacy, and upheld slavery. It should come as no surprise then that the Toltons gave the Church its first self-identified black priest from the United States.

So, to finally answer your question, being Catholic means to live, breathe, serve, and rejoice in the Holy Spirit like Martha Jane Chisley Tolton. It also means to be the pious, but once lapsed, black Catholic woman to whom Martha Jane’s son, Father Augustus Tolton, administered death rites on Sunday, May 10, 1891. Nine years earlier, this black woman, whose name has been lost in the historical record, had been “hurled out of a white church and even cursed at by the Irish members” for daring to worship with her fellow Catholics in Chicago as equals. Despite suffering such savage violence and hatred from white Catholics, this woman’s faith had endured, and she “thanked God” at her death for a priest who finally saw her as a human being and a child of God. That is what it means to keep the faith and serve God in the face of oppression. That is what it means to be truly Catholic.

JS: Let’s talk a bit about the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States, evidenced most recently by the protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.  As a historian of the black Catholic experience in the US, how do you envision your work impacting the current (and ongoing) struggle for racial equality?  

SW: First and foremost by offering a more accurate and honest accounting of the American Catholic experience. I fiercely believe in the power of reconciliation, but there can be no reconciliation without justice. And justice does not begin without the truth.

[For example,] I was among those who was deeply disturbed when GOP Congressman (LA) Stephen Scalise cited his Catholicism as a way to deflect attention away from his participation in a 2002 convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), founded by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in 2000. Rep. Scalise (who also voted against implementing and mandating the federal Martin Luther King holiday in Louisiana in 1999 and 2004) maintained that he had no knowledge of the EURO’s white supremacist ideology and cited his Catholicism to prove that he would not knowingly support such an organization since white supremacists like the Klan targeted Catholics too.

Although a few news outlets expressed concerns over Scalise’s deceptive use of his Catholicism to dismiss his white supremacist ties, none that I read actually attempted to fact-check Scalise or call attention to the Catholic Church’s long and painful history of white supremacy and segregation. Moreover, few “Catholic” sources and media outlets held Scalise accountable for his markedly “un-Catholic” behavior.

Now, to be absolutely clear, white Catholics have been officially welcome in the Klan since 1974.  In that year, the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the largest Klan organization in the nation at that time based in Louisiana and under the leadership of David Duke, voted to admit white Catholics for the first time in its history. Once reviled and targeted by America’s first domestic terrorist group, white Catholics became worthy of Klan membership as a result of their widespread opposition to racial justice and equal rights during the modern civil rights era.

Somehow we as a nation and Church have forgotten that the U.S. Catholic bishops were the last among the leadership of the nation’s seventeen major religious denominations to issue a statement in support of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Only after persistent and strident pressure from Vatican authorities, including a deathbed order from Pope Pius XII, did the nation’s bishops finally capitulate and issue an official statement in support of the Brown decision in late 1958. And, “Discrimination and the Christian Conscience,” reflected their ambivalence on the matter and offered no proposals for action “but rather commended a “method of quiet conciliation.”

On the ground, white Catholics, religious and lay, openly and violently revolted against the prospect of the desegregation of public and private spaces. White Catholics in Louisiana, Scalise’s home state, for example, were among the most virulent foot soldiers and leaders of the backlash to the black freedom struggle. Catholics led the White Citizens’ Councils in Louisiana and even bombed parish schools that had voluntarily integrated.  The oral history testimonies of black priests and sisters who integrated the nation’s historically white orders are filled with examples of white religious and lay Catholics openly celebrating the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and calling for the police to “shoot to kill” those who rebelled in the streets after King’s murder.

Yet somehow these facts are often glossed over in American Catholic history texts as anomalies or written out altogether. But, black Catholic history reveals that these kinds of episodes are far more common than not in American Catholic history.  So I would argue that black Catholic history changes what we know and what think we know about American Catholic history.

What does it mean when we acknowledge that many of the white priests and sisters who marched in Selma belonged to congregations that steadfastly refused to accept African-American candidates or treated their members of color as racial inferiors? What does it mean when we learn that white sisterhoods teaching African-American children often proved to be the most resistant to the integration of their ranks? What happens when we put African-American Catholics at the center of their history in the Church? What happens when we realize that much of early African-American history is also Catholic history and that much of early American Catholic history is African-American history? What happens when we remember that Mary Louise Smith, one of the four plaintiffs Browder v. Gayle, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled busing segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, AL and gave rise to MLK, was a cradle Catholic and remains in the Church to this day?

Consider too that few European and European-American religious orders of men and women apologized for their slaveholding pasts and/or the decades-long exclusion of African Americans from their membership ranks. Why not? Why haven’t the bishops collectively apologized for the Church’s active participation in chattel slavery and racial apartheid?  What happens when I say that I was appalled by Rep. Scalise’s actions, but I was not at all surprised by them or the fact that he used his Catholicism to try to hide his bigotry?

Does the bishops’ collective silence toward the growing “Black Lives Matter” movement mean something different if you remember their reluctance to endorse the Brown decision some sixty years ago? If all lives matter, then black lives matter. So, why aren’t all Catholics screaming “Black Lives Matter?”  I think black Catholic history provides the key to answering these questions.

JS: As a followup, Prof. Cyprian Davis, the first scholar to write a book-length history of Black Catholics in the United States, wrote that Black Catholic history provides “the perfect background for controversial topics, for distance lends enchantment and age adds a patina that softens the harshness and relieves the flare.”  Your stance on Black Catholic history seems to be quite distant from his own.

SW: First, let me state again that I remain a member of the Church of my birth because of the uncommon faithfulness of those African-American Catholic men, women, and children, like Father Cyprian Davis, who understood that racism and segregation had no place in the Church and dared to fight to make it truly Catholic. Father Davis embraced the religious state at a time when most non-black members of the Church considered people of African descent inferior and subhuman, and we all owe him and so many others for their sacrifices, fortitude, and courage.

I am also deeply indebted to Father Davis’s pioneering scholarship on the African-American Catholic community. He laid the intellectual foundation for examining the history of black Catholics in the United States, established some of the key theoretical frameworks for identifying and understanding black Catholic resistance, and challenged church historians and everyday practicing (non-black) Catholics to take black Catholic lives and experiences seriously.

With that being said, nothing about black Catholic history is or has ever been easy on the ears or psyche. Indeed, I would argue that black Catholic history is perhaps even more “controversial” than other subfields of history because of the Church’s longstanding practices of white supremacy, slavery, and segregation. These policies not only violated Catholic social teachings, but also Church law. The Catholic Church should have been at the forefront of the black freedom struggle, but it wasn’t. There should be far more black Catholics in the United States, but black Catholics are a minority within a minority in the nation. Specifically, black Catholics make up less than 4% of the U.S. population of Catholics yet over 25% of the world’s Catholics.

As you know, I have spent the past nine years researching the history of black female religious life in the United States, and I have uncovered past and present stories of discrimination and racist and sexist abuse in the Church that have shaken me to my very core. Indeed, had I known what I would uncover, I probably would not have undertaken the project. But the truth is the truth, and the history of black female religious life in the United States must be shared in part because so many forces have conspired to silence it.

Oblate Sisters of Providence, Baltimore, c. 1929.
(c) The Archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Baltimore, MD

It should give everyone pause that my study will be the first historical monograph on black Catholic sisters in the twentieth-century United States. Black women have embraced the religious state in the United States since at least 1812, and they have founded at least eleven religious orders of women—9 predominantly black and two predominantly white sisterhoods. Yet, they remain largely invisible in the historical record and have often been subject to historical erasure and myth-making.

I think I want to conclude this answer with the testimony of Sister Daniel Marie Myles, who was a pioneer black member of a historically white congregation in the Midwest. She entered her community in 1949 believing that she was the first black member of her community. However, I later discovered that the order had accepted a light-skinned black woman who could and did pass for white in 1941.

Like many pioneering black sisters in white congregations, Sister Daniel Marie Myles, a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, endured racial harassment, verbal abuse, and emotional isolation on a daily basis. Following King’s assassination in 1968, she became active in the black power movement and began to testify publicly about her experiences of discrimination in the Church. Speaking to a group of white and black sisters in the early 1970s, she recalled:

In my postulant days we went to college at the Mother House. In my freshman English class everybody laughed at the way I talked when I got up to answer a question. So…I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to answer questions or raise my hand and talk until my English improved. So when I didn’t raise my hand, what they assumed to be the reason was what they called my ‘Negro sullenness.’ Nobody bothered to ask me the reason why I’d quit speaking in class. But one day I told one of the nuns who sometimes taught the class my true reason. She said to me, ‘Well, it’s all right if you don’t want to talk, Sister. Because even if you did talk, I don’t think you could raise your grade. There’s only so far that you can go in this classroom, and that’s up to a grade C. So it doesn’t really matter if you don’t talk.’ [Nonetheless]…I still looked at and listened to the white sisters, and I imitated them. That was because I would have done anything to have them be friendly. I wanted to assimilate. I was so lonesome all the time, and they didn’t accept me. During Recreation time, I’d walk up to sisters and they’d turn away when they saw me coming. I used to pray to God to change me—change me and not them—so I’d be acceptable to them, and they wouldn’t turn away when they saw me coming. Some of the sisters, when I tried a little group, would tell me, ‘No, get out of here.’ This was after I did everything I knew how to try to become white…I was ashamed of being black then and nobody really let me be as white as I tried.

That Sister Daniel Marie remained in her community until her death in 1991 still fighting bigotry in the Church not only underscores the unfaltering grace of the nation’s black Catholic sisters, but also reminds us that we must never forget to speak the full truth about the black Catholic experience in America. Our black Catholic foremothers and forefathers fought battles that they should never have had to fight in their beloved Church, and it cost some their sanity and many more their lives. And there is nothing enchanting about that.

JS: If I may, I’d like to push you on how you might envision the Church’s further involvement in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  What would this look like?  In short, in a US Catholic demographic that is predominately white, with bishops and priests heavily tied to police departments, politicians, and community leaders, is it even possible that the US Church, from its leaders on down, be actively part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

SW: Our faith is based on the belief in the death and resurrection of a brown social revolutionary who was put to death by the state for declaring with his words and actions that the lives of the poor, marginalized, and dispossessed matter. If the U.S. Catholic Church, and indeed the global Church, cannot collectively respond to the ever expanding #BlackLivesMatter movement in an uncompromisingly supportive and radical way, then the Church (in its present structure) is DEAD. But I do not believe that the Church is yet dead.

If Catholics (and I use this term broadly and cautiously) can launch writing campaigns, organize demonstrations, and donate millions of dollars williams--usccbannually in the fight to end abortion, then they can do the same to end rampant police violence and murder. If the archbishop of Baltimore can call for prayers for the family of Freddie Gray and assert the dignity of every human being (albeit while still calling for a “peaceful response” to the rampant murder of black people), then all of the bishops of this nation can call for prayers for all of the Freddie Grays and Natasha McKennas every time they are lost to their families and communities. If the USCCB can declare that “human life is sacred” and call for the abolition of the U.S. death penalty, then they can collectively release a statement calling for the end to all forms of state violence and murder in this country and dedicate its vast resources to making it possible.

So, yes, it is absolutely possible for the U.S. Church to become an active part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it must first come to a consensus that black lives actually matter and deal with its own complicity and agency in creating the conditions that have facilitated the contemporary racial and economic crisis. It must also come to grips with the reality that the moral compass of this nation has never resided in predominantly white Catholic America and look outside of itself to the young black activists at the forefront of the social uprisings sweeping this nation. These young black and queer people are on the ground organizing, protesting, educating, and offering inclusive visions of freedom for all people in this nation, and the Church must truly listen to them when they say they have no faith in the state or the church.

There have been hundreds of Freddie Grays and Natasha McKennas and Walter Scotts and Rekia Boyds over the past three years alone. The number of black men, women, and children killed by the police in the United States has now surpassed the number of black people lynched by the white self-professed Christians of this nation during the Jim Crow era.  Police in Baltimore killed more unarmed people in 2014 than 93 of the 100 largest U.S. cities. None were white. So, why is the Church only speaking now?

How many Catholic parishes, bishops, priests, sisters, brothers, and members of the laity are familiar with the leaders of #BlackLivesMatter, the Dream Defenders, and Millennial Activists United, let alone have invited them and other protesters into their spaces to discuss the life-and-death issues affecting black people daily? williams--how-many-parishesHow many of these entities have praised, celebrated, and raised money for the black nurses and psychologists who have been in the streets with protesters from the beginning offering free counseling sessions and medical treatment to those physically and psychologically wounded by tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and the trauma of seeing a dead body lay in the street for four and a half hours or witnessing a restrained man say eleven times that he could not breathe before he died? How many parishes have prayed for the souls and families of Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Walter Scott, Natasha McKenna, Eric Garner, Miriam Carey, Eric Harris, Tanesha Anderson, Michael Brown, Jr., Renisha McBride, and the thousands of other black victims of state, vigilante, and intra-racial violence over the past ten years alone? How many writing campaigns have been launched from Catholic parishes asserting the fundamental human right of black people to live and calling for more police transparency and body cameras, an end to mass incarceration and poverty, and the prosecution and conviction of police officers who kill unarmed people? What does it mean that many (if not most) Catholic colleges and universities have predominantly African-American football and basketball programs, but don’t offer regular courses in African-American and black Catholic history or have a substantial African-American faculty?

Prayers, statements, and pastoral letters are important, but grossly insufficient, especially when they come at the tail end of protests against rampant injustice, do not call for massive structural reforms in society and a reversal of the Church’s divestment from inner-city communities, and blatantly ignore the fact that black women and girls are also the disproportionate victims of state, police, vigilante, and intra-racial violence.

The U.S. Church already has the apparatus–through its political and community connections and institutions–in place to become a leading force in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it must finally become like Jesus. We must collectively shout with our words and actions (in whichever ways that they manifest themselves) that the broken bodies and lives of the escalating number of victims of police and state violence are fundamentally more important than damaged property. If we can’t do that, then the Church will risk losing whatever moral authority and legitimacy it has left, and we will once again be lost in the wilderness.


Dr. Williams is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, where she teaches courses in U.S., African-American, women’s, civil rights, and religious history. Williams earned a Ph.D. in history and a graduate certificate in women and gender studies from Rutgers University in 2013 and spent the 2013-2014 academic year at Case Western Reserve University as a postdoctoral fellow in the history department. She also holds an M.A. in Afro-American studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a B.A. in history with magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors from Agnes Scott College.

Williams’s research on the forgotten history of black Catholic sisters has been supported by a number of fellowships and awards, including the Charlotte W. Necombe Fellowship in Religion and Ethics from the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation, the Albert J. Beveridge Grant from the American Historical Association, the John Tracy Ellis Award from the American Catholic Historical Association, and the Huggins-Quarles Award from the Organization of American Historians.

In December of 2014, Dr. Williams, in a guest blog on Patheos, publicly criticized the U.S. Catholic theologians’ statement on racial injustice that initially excluded black women and girls as victims and opponents of state and vigilante violence.  The author of many other online articles, as well as academic journal articles, Dr. Williams is also a frequent lecturer on the long and rich history of black Catholic nuns in the Atlantic World. 

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