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To tell the stories of the nation’s Black Catholic sisters—accurately and honestly—I had to tackle four core myths about the U.S. Catholic experience that have been popularized and wielded to obscure the leading roles that European and white American Catholics played in the social, political, and cultural propagation of white supremacy in the church and wider society. This keynote identifies these four myths and counters them with the facts of Black Catholic history. My address builds on the intellectual and educational traditions of the nation’s Black Catholic sisterhoods, which were the first Catholic congregations to teach and institutionalize Black and Black Catholic history within church boundaries. Because many members of the Black sisterhoods during the Jim Crow era were the descendants of the free and enslaved Black people whose labor and faithfulness built the early American church, they recognized that teaching Black Catholic history was essential in the fight against racism in their church. Black sisters also fundamentally understood that Black history is, and always has been, Catholic history.

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Higher Education | Race and Ethnicity | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies


This essay is a revised version of the keynote address delivered by Shannen Dee Williams for the University of Dayton's 2021 Global Voices Symposium. In fall 2021, Williams joined the UD faculty as an associate professor of history. Her first book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, will be published by Duke University Press in April 2022. Williams is also the author of the award-winning column “The Griot’s Cross” for the Catholic News Service.

Keynote Address: Why Black Catholic History Matters