Ralph E. Moore Jr.

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.,
Special to the AFRO

Saint Jim Crow. How does that sound?

Jim Crow was not a real human being. The name refers to White entertainers who used a stereotype of Blacks to denigrate people of color. The term evolved over time, eventually applying to the laws and customs that underpinned segregation and discrimination rules that emerged in the post-Civil War South. 

The sobriquet dates back to the 1830s, when a struggling White entertainer named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice rubbed burnt cork on his face and emulated songs he heard from a Black singer, according to the curators of the Jim Crow Museum in Big Rapids, Mich. 

Jim Crow laws, which were enacted following the abolition of slavery, did not only include the separation of Black Americans from White Americans but the denigration of people of color by legalizing White supremacy, White privilege, and White advantage. White people wanted racial segregation when it came to schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, voting, and representation in the halls of justice.

History reminds us that the Catholic Church in America, reinforced racial segregation with rules that limited African American access to  convents, seminaries, schools, hospitals, cemeteries and churches– even the ones Blacks helped build. Once Black Catholics were admitted to church services, they were required to sit apart from White congregants in the back, off to the side or in the choir loft.

Black nuns were not permitted to teach Black children in some Catholic schools.  Once they were admitted into these schools, Black nuns were assigned to cook, do laundry, do housekeeping, answer the phone and take care of the grounds, while the White nuns taught and administered.  White folks didn’t have a high opinion of Black folks. We were beneath them. 

Many who consider themselves good Catholics still act in ways that echo a sense of supremacy to Black individuals and other persons of color.  

The Catholic Church hierarchy has always lived with contradictions. While the Baltimore Catechism, the best known teaching tool for instruction of Catholic doctrine, states that “God loves everyone equally,” racial segregation was an element of the church. As James Baldwin said in The Fire Next Time, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D. in “Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle” was more blunt:

“Beyond the steady closings of Black Catholic Schools and parishes, despite Black demands and protests, the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s historic 1974 vote to admit [White] Catholics for the first time in its history proved consequential to Black Catholics.  Once reviled and targeted by the nation’s first domestic terrorist group, White Catholics had become worthy of Klan membership because of their widespread opposition to racial justice during the civil rights era.”

She noted that “U.S. Catholic bishops waited four years to publicly endorse the 1954 Brown decision [desegregating public schools] and even ignored a deathbed order from Pope Pius XII on October 8, 1958, while doing so.” 

Some select White bishops, priests and nuns used the Supreme Court decision to open up their congregations. But there was a tendency to be slow and to make changes on small scales.

In these modern times, we are faced with the imminent plan to close more Catholic churches in Baltimore City, perhaps in the next two to three years. Black Catholics across the country, including in Baltimore, have seen and heard it all before.  So many in the Catholic Church still look down upon us in secret.

 We know there is a history of White Catholicism and White supremacy practiced hand in hand by the Catholic Church in America. With the historic steady closing of predominantly Black Catholic parishes and schools –every 10 to 20 years or so. Meanwhile, mega-churches have surfaced throughout the U.S. 

To hear there are no Black Catholic saints from the United States in 2022, after America has twice elected a Black president and anointed an African-American cardinal, is upsetting but not surprising. 

White supremacy still lives in the U.S. Catholic Church among members, clergy, and Bishops.  There is little to no acknowledgment of societal racism from the pulpit.  People never confess the sins of racial prejudice to priests. Our saints are held up by a self-serving, unfair process made by and mostly for European Whites. 

In a recent interview at the Vatican, Pope Francis urged Black Catholics not to leave the church but to deal with America’s bishops and to “resist.” The Social Justice Committee of St. Ann Church in Baltimore started our letter writing campaign to Pope Francis a year ago, sending him 3,000 letters from people all over the world.  

For Black catholics, the mission should be to right a horrible wrong. Though the church hasn’t designated them as saints, Mother Mary Lange, Father Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Ms. Julia Greeley, Mr. Pierre Toussaint and Sister Thea Bowman gave much more to this world than they ever got from it. We should resist the church’s excuses, contradictory process rules and the delays and denials that block Black sainthoods.

We should travel to Rome to hand-deliver letters to press for change, to engage in  face-to-face dialogue with Pope Francis and the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the committee of cardinals that recommends candidates for sainthood to the Pope.

We want to believe that this absence of U.S. Black Catholic saints is not related to the history of White supremacy practiced by Catholics in the United States. We want to understand why there is no discomfort or urgency to fix this racial segregation among representation in the Catholic Church.  

We need someone in the highest reaches of the hierarchy to understand why we can no longer wait.   It’s on to Rome we go… before someone proposes sainthood for Jim Crow, while our Saintly Six are kept waiting – now over 720 years collectively– outside of the pearly gates.

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