by Cyprian Davis
for America Magazine
Editor’s note: The following essay was authored by Cyprian Davis, O.S.B. in the May 3, 1980 issue of America. Father Davis was an expert in Black Catholic history and died in 2015. You can read his obituary here. This article maintains the magazine style in use at the time of its publication.
A little over 50 years ago, writing in AMERICA (July 21, 1928) on “The Unknown Field of Negro History,” John LaFarge, S.J., noted: “No words need be wasted to show the importance of the history of the Negro for our national history: His life is a background for a great part of it. On the Negro, as on a pivot, turned the decisive struggle for the nation’s existence ….”
The history of the black Catholic community is just as important for the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. More than we realize, the history of the black Catholic community is coextensive with the history of the American Catholic community. What is needed today are historical studies that no longer simply probe the ministry and apostolate to blacks but rather focus the spotlight on the black Catholic community itself to determine its role in the Catholic drama of the last two centuries.
True, the history of the black Catholic community is very small compared to the history of black America at large which formed the black church, Protestant in its affiliation and its creed, uniquely African in its ethos and its celebration. The heroes of black people in this country are the black pastors and the black prophets. Alongside of this now glorious tradition, the story of the small group of black Catholics, that clung proudly and even at times desperately to its Roman and universalist traditions, to its saints, its pastors and its religious sisters, seems perhaps insignificant. They were the minority that was ministered to but seemingly did not minister, that was preached to but did not preach, that was provided for but did not provide. And yet without that black Catholic community American Catholicism would not have the characteristics it has today…