Black Catholicism in Georgia pre-dates the founding of the country, beginning with the incursion of the Spanish conquistadores of La Florida and later French emigres fleeing Revolutions in France and Haiti. Following the American Revolution, the Black Catholic community received very little individual attention. In 1874, Bishop William Gross invited Benedictine priests to the Diocese to educate Catholics of Color, especially those formerly enslaved. Out of this ministry, Black Catholic churches were established, the oldest, St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Savannah, is still active today. Other Black Catholic churches developed in Albany, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta through the efforts of Diocesan priests, St. Katharine Drexel, and ministry of the Society of African Missions, Franciscans, Dominicans, and the Glenmary Home Missioners.
As Black Catholic churches were established, the need for Catholic education was also recognized. Ministry in the field of education came from female religious orders such as the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Mercy, and the Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception to name a few. The number of Black parishes, schools, and orphanages grew in Georgia.
The 1960s and 1970s dramatically affected the Black Catholic community. Some religious orders, experiencing a post-Vatican II vocational crisis, withdrew from the Diocese, citing lack of available members to staff parishes or schools. The Era of Civil Rights and Integration caused the closure of many Black Catholic institutions. Many records and much history were lost during this period.
BLACK CATHOLIC HISTORY ADVISORY BOARD
Recognizing to the need to tell this unique story, the Archives & Records Management Department formed an Advisory Board, inviting regional representatives from around the Diocese to support the development of the Black Catholic historical narrative. Current board members Sr. Donna Banfield, SBS (Savannah), Rev. Robert Chaney (Resurrection of Our Lord Parish, Savannah), Joanne Cooke (St. Joseph Parish, Augusta), Bettye Middlebrooks (St. Peter Claver, Macon), and Terrye Thompson (Augusta) meet with Diocesan representatives from the Archives & Records Management Department and Communications to advise on strategies and upcoming historical projects.
One project being overseen by the Black Catholic History Advisory Board is our Black Catholic Community Archives. Although nothing can fully replace the loss of original records, this community archive was developed as a way to share the records and stories passed down in the Black Catholic community. Community members are invited to contribute submissions, adding to the story told through digitized material in the Diocesan Archives. It proudly showcases photographs, original documents, and images of artifacts to document the Black Catholic experience in the Diocese of Savannah.
Found in the Community Archive is an Oral History Project, undertaken to fill in record gaps with personal experiences recorded to preserve the Black Catholic history and culture.