When Pope Francis took his historic visit to the United States, much of the media attention was on the pope’s focus on the Latino community, particularly on the subject of immigration. This is understandable: According to Pew Research surveys, a third of U.S. Catholics identify as Hispanic. But there was little coverage of the pope in relation to African-Americans.
One could write that off as owing to the paucity of black Catholics; they make up only 3 percent of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. However, this discrepancy belies the fact that for two centuries now, Catholic schools in inner-city communities have been serving African-American students whose families perceived parochial schools as better alternatives to the neglected and underfunded public schools in their districts.
Parochial schools have a long and rich history. The first official Catholic school open to African-Americans was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1827 by Sister Maria Becraft as a school for free black girls at the Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. The Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of black nuns in the U.S., opened the St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls in Baltimore in June 1828, with offshoots soon appearing in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
In 1919 the country’s small African-American Catholic community established the Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics, which sought to attract converts by expanding the church’s educational outreach. With the success of the all-black Catholic college Xavier University in New Orleans (founded in 1914), the committee believed that by filling in the gap where public funding for black schools fell short (often resulting in understaffed classrooms), it could make the greatest gains in recruiting African-American members. The Great Migration, the large influx of black people to the North, provided the Catholic Church and its parish schools with a golden opportunity. In 1945, all Catholic schools in Chicago were made open to black students, a stunning move in a Northern city now infamous for intense segregation through redlining.
The most prominent pop culture reference to the presence of African-Americans in Catholic schools is the opening scene of “Sister Act,” in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Dolores, is first shown as a child attending a fictional Catholic school in California, St. Anne’s Academy, in 1968. The sequel, “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” provided most Americans with their first glimpse of burgeoning musician Lauryn Hill.
This reflects a real trend: For many African-Americans from working- and middle-class families, Catholic school is an integral part of our biographies and identity. At a small fraction of the cost of most private schools, parochial education provided African-Americans with their only realistic alternative to failing public schools before the charter school era.
From grades 4 through 8, I attended an almost entirely African-American Catholic school in Philadelphia, Cecilian Academy. Remarkably, almost none of us were Catholic. The students were predominately Baptist and Methodist, with some Muslims and still fewer Catholics. Alongside the nuns (who were all white), there was an African-American Catholic vice principal who had been active in the civil rights movement. She combined her Catholic faith with black pride cultural politics and infused that into the fabric of the school.
During my time at Cecilian Academy (named after St. Cecilian, the patron saint of music), we learned traditional African songs, and we sang the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at our monthly Mass. We had an annual African-American history bee that was the event of the year. In the seventh grade, my class put on a play about the Harlem Renaissance, and in the eighth grade, we produced a musical about African-American jazz performers. (I played Ella Fitzgerald.) When I recall my time there, what strikes me the most is that this Catholic school had been transformed into a black pride center full of non-Catholics — and no one found it odd. I recently came across a volume of essays, titled “Growing Up African-American in Catholic Schools,” full of stories that speak to the kind of eclectic cultural experience I had in Catholic school. While Catholic schools in black communities were intended to evangelize us, we transformed Catholic schools into hybrid spaces to suit our own needs.
Cecilian Academy has since closed its doors, as has another Catholic church that served the African-American neighborhood where I grew up. The widespread closure of Catholic schools in inner-city neighborhoods has gotten some attention from journalists and researchers. According to the research from the National Catholic Education Association, from 2004 to 2014, nearly 2,000 Catholic schools in the U.S. were shut down or consolidated. The number of Catholic elementary schools in the 12 largest cities declined 29.5 percent over that period. Higher operating costs associated with the decline of religious orders (which once provided practically free labor in the form of nuns) have led to tuition hikes, driving down enrollment figures in cities like New Orleans where poor black families rely on small state vouchers. Finances alone aren’t the only issue, as inner-city Catholic schools, particularly those serve predominately African-Americans, have been shutting at faster rates than those in mostly white, Catholic communities, suggesting that the archdioceses have grown tired of investing so much of its resources into non-Catholic students who have historically not converted after attending parish schools. I went on to attend a public high school, and I haven’t attended a Mass since.
In the coverage of Francis’ speech to Congress, there was some mention of his reference to Martin Luther King Jr. in his address, an act many interpreted as a papal hat tip to Black Lives Matter. But in his visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem, the pope invoked another bygone era of black politics, when Catholics and African-Americans worshiped and studied side by side in far greater numbers than they do now.
I braved the crowds to see Francis in downtown Philadelphia. When his Jeep Wrangler sped by, I wondered what it must feel like for Catholics to see the pope, what it must be like to have a personal connection to that figure we saw drive by. Then I remembered that I too, as an African-American, have a claim on the complex history of the Catholic Church in the United States.