I spent a recent autumn season sitting in living rooms, at kitchen tables, on church pews, and in the offices of some spirit-filled, long-suffering and determined Christians that I’ve had the privilege to encounter. These African-American Catholic Christian soldiers allowed me to enter their homes and their hearts. Their faith stories are rich, dripping with the knowledge of Christ the King. And regardless of what society said about their dark skin, they knew then and they know now that their value comes from the One who made them.
Many of the stories bring to mind hurtful and unfair conditions but even so, these black Catholics persevered and continue to run the good race. My hope is that these interviews will allow readers to see and feel the strength of these women and men of faith; and to be enlightened and inspired as I have been.
I am grateful to each subject for trusting me to unearth such precious jewels. These men and women are mature Christians and without this project, I suspect that their Catholic faith journey would have gone untold and the jewels would have remained buried. Each individual has their own faith story but if you look closely their stories intertwine.
I have come to learn about the wonderful service of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They served in segregated parishes such as St. Edward and St. Ann in the west end of Cincinnati and instilled in African-American Catholic children during the Jim Crowe era that the social condition was wrong. “You are as good as anybody else.” “You are smart,” the Sisters would tell the children.
I am in awe of how many of these men and women talked to me about “The Beatitudes” and how the sisters planted the beauty of the promises of God into their hearts.
Matthew 5: 3-12
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are
the meek, for they shall possess the earth. 5 Blessed are they who mourn, for they
shall be comforted. 6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they
shall be satisfied. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 Blessed
are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for
they shall be called children of God. 10 Blessed are they who suffer persecution for
justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you, when men
reproach you, and persecute you, and, speaking falsely, say all manner of evil
against you, for my sake. 12 Rejoice and exult, because your reward is great in
heaven; for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you.
It is good news, and it is news that the grandchildren of slaves needed to hear! As children, these black Catholics applied the Beatitudes to their lives, and it made a difference! Yes! Times were challenging. The Great Depression and World War II challenged every American citizen, but the black folk were victims of the ugliness of racism, segregation, poor education, substandard housing, and non-existing health care. These are dreadful facts, but it is also a fact that not one of these subjects harbors hate or remorse. They are more than survivors. They are conquerors who rely on their faith in God.
Ms. Barbara Reid who was sent to Girls Town in Cincinnati after her mother’s death surprised me when she said, “If I had to come up again, I would do it the same way.”
Mrs. Irene Bryant, who grew up at Bessie Allen Orphanage in Louisville, said the same thing.
Mrs. Ethel Dillingham, a parishioner at St. Benedict the Moor in Dayton was sent from home to attend the school founded by Sister Mary Lange and The Oblate Sisters of Providence, Cardinal Gibbons Institute in Baltimore, Md.
Mrs. Elouise Walker could not attend a Catholic High School in Key West, Fla., because there was not a Catholic School for “colored” children.
Mr. Myron Kilgore attended Martin de Porres High School, the only black Catholic all-boys’ school in Cincinnati, and he was the first African American athlete to graduate from Xavier University [Cincinnati, Ohio].
Mrs. Sallie Pearl Coaston worked at the Pentagon in the 1940s and Mrs. Joyce Coleman was one of four young Black ladies to integrate the Mercy School of Nursing in the 1950’s.
These are only a few excerpts of their stories. Each of their stories is as compelling as the next. Does hope spring eternal? You bet it does! As Deacon Raphael Simmons’ grandmother put it, “Child, the sun don’t shine on one dog’s behind all of the time!”