Black Catholic Women are Forgotten Prophets of American Democracy

Amanda Gorman during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Carlos M. Vazquez II/Flickr)

On Jan. 6, a mostly White mob attacked the nation’s Capitol in a violent attempt to overturn the election of the nation’s second Catholic president and first female, Black and Asian American vice president. Two weeks later, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman took the stage at the Biden-Harris inauguration in front of the same Capitol, and delivered a sermon on equality and hope in the face of lethal resistance with her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

After her awe-inspiring performance, Gorman—the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history—became an instant star and best-selling author, even becoming the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl. The recent Harvard graduate who cogently articulated a Democratic and biblical vision of justice and inclusion also became one of the nation’s most famous Catholics.

Although the media’s coverage initially overlooked Gorman’s membership at South Central Los Angeles’s historically Black St. Brigid Catholic Church, religion reporters rushed to correct their oversight in the ensuing days, with many citing Gorman’s faith as further confirmation that the inauguration ceremony was “the most Catholic in history.”

Yet Gorman’s presence as a “skinny Black girl descended from slaves” on the stage with President Biden, Vice President Harris and former Georgetown University president Father Leo O’Donovan, who delivered the inauguration’s opening invocation, was even more significant, given the leading role of the modern Roman Catholic Church in the histories of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.

As Gorman reflected on the need for the nation to repair its brutal past, to confront the unyielding threat of white supremacy and fully embrace the promises of a truly equal and inclusive democracy, she quite literally stood at the intersection of the Catholic Church—the first global institution to declare that Black lives did not matter—and Black women’s long fight for equal rights and unwavering declarations that the lives of Black people fundamentally do matter.

Despite popular contention, slavery in the land area that became the United States did not begin under Protestant influence in Virginia in 1619. Instead, it began in 1565 under Spanish Catholic auspices in Florida with the successful establishment of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest surviving city. Beginning in the 15th century with a series of papal bulls, including Pope Nicholas V’s “Dum Diversas” (1452) and Pope Alexander VI’s “Inter Caetera” (1493), the Catholic Church authorized the perpetual enslavement of Africans and the seizure of “non-Christian” lands. It also morally sanctioned and actively participated in the transatlantic slave trade, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of African men, women and children.

From the beginning, Africans and African-descended people fought the trade and enslavement in the Americas. And many did so as members of the Catholic Church. In the land area that became the continental United States, the first underground railroad led south to a runaway haven in Spanish Florida built by formerly enslaved Black people who successfully fled from slavery in English-controlled territories and agreed to convert to Catholicism and join the Spanish military in exchange for their freedom.

Black Catholics, especially women and girls, also fought to forge a tradition of Catholicism free from slavery, segregation and white supremacy within the U.S. Church.

Baptismal, marriage and confraternity records from the cradles of U.S. Catholicism, especially Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, are inundated with the names of free and enslaved Black women and girls, whose labor, sales and faithfulness not only fueled the early church’s development, but also seeded antislavery and anti-racist sentiments in the faith.

Many of these devout Black women and girls, for example, established some of the nation’s earliest Catholic schools, orphanages, parishes and nursing homes freely open to Black people. Several of these women and their descendants also became members of the modern world’s first Roman Catholic sisterhoods freely open to African-descended women and girls. These included the historically Black Oblate Sisters of Providence established in Baltimore in 1828, and the historically Afro-Creole and Black Sisters of the Holy Family established in New Orleans in 1842.

In Washington, D.C., home to one of the nation’s longest-standing Catholic communities, one of the most important challenges to slavery and white supremacy in the early U.S. Church emerged from the Black Catholic community that worshiped on a segregated basis at the Jesuit-led Holy Trinity Catholic Church, where Biden attended his first post-inauguration Mass.

During slavery, free and enslaved Black Catholics made up as much as a third of Holy Trinity’s faithful. Among them were the family of William Becraft and Sarah McDaniel Becraft, both of whom are buried at Holy Rood Cemetery on Georgetown’s campus.

In 1820, the Becrafts’ 15-year-old daughter, Anne Marie, established one of Washington’s earliest educational institutions open to Black children. Over the next decade, she transformed her school into the first Catholic day and boarding academy for Black girls in the country, winning crucial support from a Jesuit priest stationed at Holy Trinity and the French-transplanted community of Visitation Sisters, the second order of nuns to minister in the original 13 states. According to the chief surviving account of Becraft’s life, her academy, which became known as the Georgetown Seminary, was relocated in 1827 directly across the street from the Visitation convent and academy, where more than 80 enslaved men, women and children labored, and around the corner from Georgetown College, where more than 300 enslaved men, women and children did the same.

That Becraft not only dared to establish a Black Catholic school amid the nation’s and the church’s slaveholding elite, but also routinely marched her “troop of girls, dressed uniformly … in procession … to devotions on the sabbath at Holy Trinity Church” in the veritable hell of D.C. slavery, underscores both the subversive and emancipatory nature of Catholicism in the hands Black women and girls fighting white supremacy.

That surviving records document that William Becraft was “the natural son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a free woman of color who worked in Carroll’s household, also matters.

One of the early nation’s largest enslavers, Carroll was a descendant of one of the first European families to settle in Maryland and an early benefactor of the U.S. Church. He was also a cousin of the slaveholding Jesuit priest John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop and Georgetown’s first president—a poignant reminder that White Catholics played leading roles in America’s slave society during and even before the founding of the nation, despite the realities of anti-Catholicism.

Although Becraft’s school would not survive her departure from D.C. to enter the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1831, the legacy of her revolutionary and anti-racist vision for her church and its Black female faithful lived on through the herculean efforts of the nation’s Black Catholic nuns and laywomen, who often led efforts to desegregate institutions in their Church and wider American society.

While many of these Black Catholic women freedom fighters currently remain hidden figures in our history, the lives and labors of a few—like South Carolina’s early suffragists, the famed Rollin Sisters, Montgomery Bus Boycott plaintiff Mary Louise Smith, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Diane Nash and Selma march veteran Sister Mary Antona Ebo—are well-known. And their hopes, dreams and legacies were on full display for the nation and world to see Jan. 20.

Indeed, the photograph of Gorman, positioned between Biden and Harris and calling for justice and national unity, may very well go down as one of history’s most important images. In daring to imagine herself a future president of America’s “unfinished” project, Gorman brought forward a revolutionary and womanist tradition of Black Catholicism that far too many people deny exists. She also powerfully reminded her nation and church that Black women and girls are some of its most formidable prophets of democracy and Catholicism — if only they dare to listen.

**This piece is reprinted in collaboration with The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History.’

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Shannen Dee Williams

Shannen Dee Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. She is completing her first book, "Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle," with Duke University Press. Follow her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.

Comments on “Black Catholic Women are Forgotten Prophets of American Democracy

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    Great article! Thank you for this important history lesson and call to pay attention to the layers of significance of Amanda Gorman’s journey to the Inauguration.

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    Meaningful and relevant to this Black Catholic woman! Thank you.

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    Thank you, Professor Williams, for this thorough introduction. I am writing a biography of a Black woman who, among other things, converted to Catholicism while teaching the newly emancipated. This decision might likely be seen as a repudiation of the Protestant denominations of her former enslavers and of the Northern white sponsors of freedpeople’s schools (she frequently rankled under their “supervision” of her work). But it also might have either separated her from other Blacks, including those she taught . . . and she also retained her Catholic practice after leaving the South to settle in the North. You’ve given great framing for understanding a “bigger picture” of Black Catholicism in the nineteenth century, which will help me (and others!) think through what Catholicism meant to specific individuals and communities. I would also add that Protestant denominations were more likely than the Catholic Church to oppose interracial marriages/families, which I know might have been a factor for the woman’s who I am writing about.

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