If I asked you to identify Fulton Sheen, or Damien of Molokai, or Elizabeth Ann Seton, or Frances Xavier Cabrini, could you do it? Most likely you would be successful. Of course, if you are a Detroiter, you know Solanus Casey, O.F.M. All of these individuals are American Catholics who advanced the great mission given to all of us by Jesus. And do you know Julia Greeley or Mary Elizabeth Lange? How about Henriette Delille or Pierre Toussaint? Augustus Tolton? Thea Bowman? Yes, each of these individuals are also American Catholics who advanced the mission given to all of us by Jesus, and each of these folks happen to be Black.
February is here. We celebrate Black History Month, a federally recognized opportunity to identify the contributions African Americans have made to this country and a time to reflect on the continued struggle for racial justice. For many, Black History Month has become one of the most celebrated cultural heritage months on the calendar. School agendas are adjusted; lectures, plays and television specials are produced; major brands roll out special clothing, and some restaurants offer Black history-themed meals. If we are not careful, some of this can come off as tone-deaf or flat.
Almost a century ago, a gentleman named Carter G. Woodson recognized that the American education system offered very little information about the accomplishments of African Americans. Woodson was an accomplished man himself and is credited with developing Black History Month. He grew up in even more difficult and divided times. His parents were enslaved, yet from these challenging roots, he became an author & historian and the second African American to earn a Ph.D at Harvard University. Woodson is known as the “Father of Black History,” since he proposed a national “Negro History Week.” It wasn’t until 1976, during the height of the civil rights movement, that President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into Black History Month. Woodrow stated, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history”.
I don’t have to remind you that we are in the midst of very difficult times. As a nation we are divided on many different levels. It is almost impossible to bridge the gaps if we each refuse to understand the other. Experts say that an understanding of Black history and learning more about systemic racism is essential to uniting as a country as we face backlash to civil rights activism.
I invite us to be inspired: to lend our due diligence and study up on the biographies and history of prominent African Americans. Woodson believed that it was essential for young African Americans to understand and be proud of their heritage. As American Catholics, we can do this too by understanding and being proud of our American Black Catholic heroes. In doing this, we will more fully understand our own mission given to us by Jesus. As a country we need to work toward reconciliation. Understanding our history and accountability can assist the country in moving past racial harm. As Catholics and disciples of Jesus, we all need to work toward reconciliation.
I ask once again, who is Julia Greeley or Mary Elizabeth Lange? Do you know about Henriette Delille or Pierre Toussaint? How did Augustus Tolton or Thea Bowman serve Jesus? If you don’t know, I encourage you to investigate and share their stories. In doing so, maybe we can better understand our stories, our sin, our redemption, and our mission.