Subversive habits Black Catholic nuns in the long African American freedom struggle

Shannen Dee Williams, 1982-

Book - 2022

"In this groundbreaking study, Shannen Dee Williams offers the first full historical treatment of Black Catholic sisters in the United States. Drawing upon a host of untapped sources, including previously sealed church records and oral histories, Subversive Habits recovers Black sisters' lives and labors as pioneering Black religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, desegregation foot soldiers, Black power activists, and womanist theologians. This book also turns attention to female religious life in the Roman Catholic Church as a stronghold of white supremacy and racial segregation-and in turn an important battleground of the long African American freedom struggle"--

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Durham : Duke University Press 2022.
Main Author
Shannen Dee Williams, 1982- (author)
Physical Description
xxiii, 394 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Abbreviations
  • Note on Terminology
  • Preface: Bearing Witness to a Silenced Past
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. America's Forgotten Black Freedom Fighters
  • 1. "Our Sole Wish Is to Do the Will of God" The Early Struggles of Black Catholic Sisters in the United States
  • 2. "Nothing Is Too Good for the Youth of Our Race" The Fight for Black-Administered Catholic Education during Jim Crow
  • 3. "Is the Order Catholic Enough?" The Struggle to Desegregate White Sisterhoods after World War II
  • 4. "I Was Fired Up to Go to Selma" Black Sisters, the Second Vatican Council, and the Fight for Civil Rights
  • 5. "Liberation Is Our First Priority" Black Nuns and Black Power
  • 6. "No Schools, No Churches!" The Fight to Save Black Catholic Education in the 1970s
  • 7. "The Future of the Black Catholic Nun Is Dubious" African American Sisters in the Age of Church Decline
  • Conclusion. "The Catholic Church Wouldn't Be Catholic If It Wasn't for Us"
  • Glossary
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

In her introduction to Subversive Habits, Williams (history, Univ. of Dayton) calls the subjects of this monograph "America's forgotten Black freedom fighters" and then seeks to build evidence of the "forgottenness" and the significance of Black American nuns in the struggle for freedom and justice in the US. She is successful in doing so. Beginning in the early-19th century, Black women religious came to play significant roles in the 20th-century freedom struggle. Sadly, white supremacy was rampant even among religious orders in the US. Nevertheless, Black nuns worked fervently for a voice in their own communities and in the long fight for equal rights and equal treatment in the church and country. The sisters were especially active in efforts to offer quality Catholic education to Black students. Williams seeks to tell the story of these women and of the Black and majority white sisterhoods in which they participated. The account is well documented, and Williams includes a look at the current departures of Black sisters from religious life and considers the likely future of Black female religious communities. Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty, and professionals. --Lydia Huffman Hoyle, Campbell University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Williams, a history professor at the University of Dayton, brings to light in her ambitious debut the overlooked contributions of American Black Catholic nuns to the fight for civil rights. Williams provides a crucial amendment to standard histories of U.S. Catholicism and Black religion generally by focusing on the "voices of a group of Black American churchwomen whose lives, labors, and struggles have been systematically ignored," while convincingly arguing that their activism led the Church to liberalize its position on racial issues. Williams provides fascinating detail on the establishment of the influential National Black Sisters' Conference in 1968, Black nuns' victories in desegregating Catholic universities and all-white sisterhoods, and the efforts of civil rights activist Sister Mary Antona Ebo, who protested for racial justice from Selma, Ala., to Ferguson, Mo. Informative and often surprising, this should be required reading for scholars of Catholic and African American religious history and will undoubtedly become the standard text on its subject. (May)

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