Challenging Historical Erasure during Black Catholic History Month

Caraline Feairheller
November 30, 2020

November is National Black Catholic History Month, which was founded in 1990 by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the United States. The month is designated as a time to learn and celebrate the long and rich history of Black Catholics and correct misleading and incomplete understandings of Catholic history that leave Black Catholic history out.

As a non-Catholic it was not until I began my associate year at NETWORK that I learned Black Catholic History Month existed. So, in order to educate myself on the Black Catholic experience I attended virtual lectures, read news articles and opinion pieces and began to learn how Black Catholics persevered in the face of white supremacy both in the Church and in society. In my educational journey, one name consistently came up: Dr. Shannen Dee Williams. Her important work researching and documenting hidden history, directly confronts the historical erasure of Black Catholics because, as she says, “when confronted with historical erasure, one of the most radical acts that a person can undertake is to tell the story that was never meant to be told.”

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams is living out this radical act of truth telling in her work as a scholar and assistant professor of history at Villanova University. As a scholar, Dr. Williams research focuses on uncovering the largely erased history of Black Catholics both within the Catholic Church and within the larger society. Dr. Williams is a cradle (and still practicing) Catholic, however, it was only because of her academic research that she came to know Black Catholic history, especially the history of Black Catholic Sisters. Institutionally, both the Church and its pillars of formal education do not include Black Catholics and do not confront the Church’s own legacy of white supremacy, a legacy that began with the Church being one of the first and largest slaveholders in the Americas, as Dr. Williams writes.

Dr. Williams continuously affirms that #BlackHistoryIsCatholicHistory. Despite this, we see in both Catholic history and U.S. history the continuous erasure of Black people and their contributions. This erasure reminds us that neither the Church nor U.S government has been innocent in the creation or maintenance of white supremacy. Both institutions must be held accountable for inflicting and allowing both historical racist violence and modern white supremacy. To be held accountable for these sins is both an act of love and a necessity for creating true belonging.

NETWORK was founded by Catholic Sisters to work on political advocacy at the national level. This work of political advocacy, rooted in Catholic Social Justice, requires a clear and unbiased understanding of both Catholic history and United States history. One way NETWORK works to advance racial equity is through organizing and educating about the racial wealth and income gap. It is important for advocates to know that the racial wealth and income gap was not created by accident, but instead was the purposeful result of sustained racist federal policies that stole wealth from Black communities while benefitting white individuals and families. In our advocacy, we seek to understand the ways that racist policies disproportionately affect people of color and center racial justice as we work for social and economic justice.

Black Catholic History Month is an opportunity to grow in our understanding of the Church’s complicity in structural racism and recognize the committed witness of Black Catholics. At the same time, we must continue learning how our federal policies have sustained and continue perpetuating systemic racism, and actively work in both the Church and the world to end the sin of white supremacy.


Follow Dr. Shannen Dee Williams’ research and work through her Twitter: @BlkNunHistorian