Sunday, February 10, 2008

Black History Month: Black Catholics in America

I have obliquely alluded, in this space, to the fact that I am of the Roman Catholic faith. This may come as a surprise to a lot of folks, some of whom believe a black Catholic is rarer than a campfire at the North Pole. Frequently, when people learn that I'm a Catholic, they say, "When did you convert?" Well, in my case, I didn't convert--I'm a so-called "cradle Catholic." But I will admit that I'm just a second generation Catholic.

I come from a maternal line that has a lot of Baptist preachers. Most prominent of these would be my great-grandfather, James William Long (1866-1945). He was a deacon at Kansas City's renowned Paseo Baptist Church before becoming pastor of Sunrise Baptist Church. My mother's uncle, Henry Willie Gines (1903-1980) was a Baptist preacher as was his son, Frank William Gines (1935-1999). My aunt, Delorise Gines, has a ministry that grew out of her participation at Paseo.

So how did I end up Catholic? Well, the earthly answer goes like this: my grandmother, Annie Florida Corrine Long, had a stormy relationship with her father, the aforementioned Rev. James William Long. I don't know all the details, but I'm sure it was not helped by her desire to be a dancer in Kansas City's vaudeville revues. When she left her parents' house in the 1920's, she became a dancer and never opened a Bible nor set foot in a church (except for weddings and funerals) ever again. Her children, including my mother, grew up "unchurched," for the most part.

But, as a teenager, my mother had three close friends, who, in today's vernacular, "hung out" together. They took turns going to each other's churches. One girl was Baptist, one Methodist, and one Catholic. As a result of these friendships, my mother eventually became very active in the Methodist church. She was a leader in a statewide Methodist teen group. Even while she did this, my mother continued to attend her other friends' churches and continued to study religion on her own. Ultimately, for reasons personal to her, my mother at age 16 became a Catholic.

Meanwhile, in Texas, my father was having religious experiences of his own. I don't know of any clergy on my father's side and I don't really know of any specific religious preferences in his family (with one exception). But because the Depression-era schools in Aransas County, Texas, refused to educate black children, the first school my father attended was a Catholic grade school. This evidently made an impression on him and he, too, became a Catholic as a teenager.

When my parents met in college, their Catholicism was something they had in common.

As I grew up, the only other black Catholic family I knew of was that of my paternal great-uncle, Herman Walker (1906-2002). And I don't think he was born a Catholic; rather I think he converted when he met and married his wife Ida, a French Creole Catholic from Louisiana. But he was a devout Catholic. His funeral program noted that he had attended St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houston for sixty-six years and that he was a member of The Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society.

Despite their apparent invisibility, black Catholics have played important roles in the Church in America due originally and derivatively to the nation's French and Spanish heritages. In fact, the first blacks in America were Catholics. They helped settle America's oldest European-established city, St Augustine, Florida, in 1565.

Over the next few posts, we'll tell the stories of significant African-American Catholics.


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to the upcoming posts. Most of the black Catholics I know come from the New Orleans or Louisiana area originally. Blacks played a large role in the church there from what I've been told.

Terry Thornton said...

Craig, What an interesting personal essay documenting so much of your heritage. Thanks for sharing --- I now feel as if I know you well enough to say one of my friends I knew in the Army while at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri (1957) was a black Catholic. Somewhere here is a rosary he gave to me which I've treasured for years. And I remember, I think, you saying that your family spent some time at that same military post.

Lori Thornton said...

This is very interesting. Most of the blacks I knew in north Mississippi belonged to either the M.B., C.M.E., or Church of God in Christ churches. I had read of black Catholics, but had not really thought much of it!

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

great post and nice blog. chk out this black history month when u can and let me know what u think The father of Jim Crow

Craig Manson said...

We lived at Fort Leonard Wood from 1956 to 1958. In fact, my sister born there in 1957. Unfortunately, Dad's not remembering a lot about Ft Leonard Wood. But what a coincidence!

Terry Thornton said...

Craig, I had Combat Engineering Training at at post --- it was nicknamed "Little Korea" or the mountainous area we often used for training was called that.