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  • The Color of Christ’s Brides
  • Shannen Dee Williams36

The most dangerous weapon of white supremacy has always been its ability to erase the history of its violence and its victims. For church scholars, the elusive history of black women religious – Catholic nuns and sisters – is arguably the most powerful testament to this fact. In the first century, black women living in Nubia (then called Ethiopia), and converted to Catholicism by St. Matthew, founded the world’s first monastery for women.37 In the twenty-first century, women of black African descent constitute the fastest growing segment of the global sister population.38 Despite these historical and contemporary realities, the lives and labors of black sisters remain unknown to vast majority of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In over 2,000 years of black female religious life, the church has canonized only two black nuns, St. Iphigenia in the pre-modern era and St. Josephine Bakhita in 2000. Historical studies of black women religious are almost as rare.39 This is especially true in the United States, where African-American Catholic women founded the western world’s first sisterhoods freely open to black people and waged unprecedented battles against white supremacy and racial segregation in the church. [End Page 14]

Nine years ago, I was completely unaware of the long and rich history of black female religious life. At no point during my Catholic or public school education was I ever taught about black sisters, and frighteningly, I only encountered their history by chance. While searching for a paper topic in graduate school, I stumbled upon a newspaper article detailing the formation of the National Black Sisters’ Conference (NBSC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1968.40 Shocked by my discovery, I began scouring databases for any mention of this historic federation and the sister-activists whose names I had collected. While the available material was disturbingly scant, I quickly realized that everything that I knew about the American Catholic experience would change in a radical way. In particular, I learned that the church – and white sisters especially – were not innocent bystanders or forced followers of the nation’s white supremacist regime. Indeed, black sisters’ published testimonies revealed that Jim Crow unapologetically thrived in female religious life through America’s civil rights years and drove scores of black sisters out of their orders in the late sixties and seventies alone.41

From the few published monographs on African-American sisters, I learned of the existence of the nation’s historically black sisterhoods, founded first in the nineteenth century to ensure the development of African-American religious life and the survival of a non-racist articulation of Catholicism in the United States.42 And from my earliest oral history interviews, I listened intently as elderly black sisters and laywomen recounted their heartbreaking experiences of discrimination [End Page 15] in the church, which often included being rejected admission solely on the basis of race into the white sisterhoods that had educated them.43

Thoroughly unsettled by how invisible black sisters and their monumental contributions had been to me – a cradle Catholic and budding historian of black women – I decided to join a small community of scholars working to document their subversive history. Since 2007, I have conducted research in over 26 archives. To fill in the gaps created by archival restrictions and manufactured silences, I have also collected over 85 oral testimonies of current and former sisters and laywomen whose calls to religious life were thwarted by a collusion of racism and segregation during the first half of the twentieth century.44 During the process, I discovered that many of America’s black nuns were the descendants of the enslaved men, women, and children once “owned” by the church, including the Jesuit Fathers at Georgetown University and some of the nation’s oldest and most prominent white Catholic families, including the Carrolls of Maryland and the Spaldings of Kentucky.45 I [End Page 16] also marveled and fumed at the high number of black women and girls forced to travel hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away from their loved ones to answer God’s call on their lives in the few...


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