Glad You Asked: Who were the first Black Catholics in the United States?

In this episode of the podcast, Leslye Colvin discusses the first Black Catholics in the United States and how their experiences shaped the church today.

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When we talk about the global history of Catholicism, we may be tempted to portray the church as the unequivocal moral hero in every story. But our factual history is far more complicated than hagiographies and triumphalist narratives would have us believe. Different people at different times have experienced the impact of the church on their culture and personal lives in diverse ways, not always purely benign. 

Today’s Glad You Asked question, appropriate for Black Catholic History Month, is about the first Black Catholics in the United States. And it can’t really be answered if we’re unwilling to look objectively at our shared history, both as U.S. citizens and as Catholics. 

Who were the first Black Catholics in this country? What were their lives like before they arrived here, and after? How did their experiences help shape the multifaceted reality of the church’s identity today? 

Discussing these questions might make a lot of people uncomfortable. But we can’t grapple with them if we’re afraid to face the fact that sometimes Catholics make grave moral errors, and that this nation has not always fought for liberty and justice for all. We also need to consider the fact that Catholicism is not the exclusive property of white Europeans, and that rich Catholic cultures have flourished beyond the world of Gothic cathedrals and Gregorian chant. 

Today’s guest on the podcast, Leslye Colvin, is a writer, contemplative, and activist who has written and spoken extensively about race and Catholicism. Colvin’s most recent research has been into the anti-racist work of Thomas Merton. 

You can find more information about Colvin’s research, the history of Black Catholics in the United States, and the church’s role in anti-racism work, in these links.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.