Black Catholic History Month: Black Catholics in the South

The notion of black Catholics in the South is not often the subject of much discussion by anyone, anywhere.  The southern United States is frequently thought of as having been settled largely by Scots-Irish and English people, not exactly fans of the Church of Rome.   The South is caricatured as a bastion of Baptists and, if one wants “high church,” Presbyterians.  Beyond that, outsiders think of marginal cult-like Christianity in the South with practices regarded as odd, if not outright ridiculous.   Blacks in the South are stereotyped as Baptists, but rarely thought of as being anything like Catholic.

Of course, these preconceptions fail to serve anyone or respect anybody’s beliefs.   Southern Protestants, black and white, are quite a complex and diverse group.   And southern black Catholics were among the first Catholics in North America.

We have previously discussed St Augustine, Florida, where a black child was baptized by a Catholic priest in 1606.  This was more than a quarter-century before the arrival of the first Catholic settlers in Maryland.

One might reasonably say that the South was the birthplace of black Catholicism.  The geopolitical history of the region beginning in the sixteenth century explains this point.

Near the end of the fifteenth century, the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella.  The unified kingdom had its internal problems to be sure, but the old adage “two crowned heads are better than one” proved true as Aragon-Castile embarked on  a number of imperial expeditions and conquests.  Among these, of course, were successful forays into North America.   At one point, “Spain” [as the merged kingdoms became known popularly] controlled what is now Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and parts of Georgia and Louisiana.

The Spanish brought black slaves with them to Florida in the sixteenth century.   The Spanish viewpoint on slavery was vastly different from that  of their enemies, them British.  The Spanish had white, as well as black slaves, so for the Spanish, slavery was not completely tied up with race.  Furthermore, Spanish law, heavily influenced by the Church, regarded slaves as human beings and not as property.  As a result, Spanish slaves were frequently baptized, permitted to marry, and encouraged to  have families.

Such attitudes were reinforced when the Bourbons took the Spanish Crown in 1700.   The French, too, controlled large areas of southern North America and held similar views  about slavery.  The South was an incubator for Catholicism among blacks.

There are several significant black Catholic locales in the South, other than St Augustine.   The Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi, though a late 20th century creation, owes its black Cathodic roots to the era of  Spanish rule. The same could be said of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, with respect to the French.

But in the nineteenth century, both Spain and France, otherwise and elsewhere engaged,  lost their  North American territories to Britain and the United States.   As the plantation system spread across the South, the demand for more black labor grew.  French and Spanish laws were replaced by harsh slave codes.  The number of black Catholics dwindled in number and proportion.


November 2009
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