Pope Francis has deemed the first known black Roman Catholic priest in the United States to be “venerable,” positioning the former slave for possible sainthood.
The pontiff’s designation of the Rev. Augustine Tolton as venerable, meaning the church intensely scrutinized his life and recognizes it as one of “heroic virtue,” puts Tolton two steps away from possible canonization, the Diocese of Springfield explained in announcing the designation.
Born to a Missouri slave in 1854, Tolton, his mother and two siblings, with help from Union soldiers, eluded Confederate guns and escaped across the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1862, settling in Quincy, a river city about 110 miles (177 kilometers) northwest of St. Louis.
Baptized a Catholic, the faith of his family’s Missouri owners, Tolton studied for the priesthood in Rome because his race precluded his acceptance to a U.S. seminary.
“Father Tolton’s story, from slave to priest, is an incredible journey that shows how God has a plan for all of us,” Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Springfield Diocese said in a statement. “Father Tolton overcame the odds of slavery, prejudice and racism … (and) carried his crosses in life quietly and heroically.”
Work continues on Tolton’s history. If a miracle can be attributed to his ministry, the pope may declare him “blessed.” A second miracle would make him eligible for sainthood. The Springfield Diocese, which includes Quincy, and the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Tolton ministered to the poor before dying at 43 in 1897, have been working on his canonization since 2003.
Michael Patrick Murphy, director of Catholic Studies for Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Theology, said for Tolton to move from “Servant of God” in 2011 to “venerable” just eight years later indicates the seriousness of the church’s review. Reaching the “venerable” stage “kicks the machine into gear” as researchers search for miracles, a weighty and fact-reliant process, he said.
“Miracles by definition interrupt the laws of nature,” Murphy said. “But there are such strenuous, intellectual processes that are so normative- and so protocol-driven that there can’t be a retroactive, ‘Let’s make this happen’ type-of-thing.”
Tolton assumed he would work in Africa, but once ordained at age 31, he was sent back to Quincy. A biographer recounted Tolton’s conversation with another cleric shortly before departing in which he wondered whether America deserved being called by many the world’s most enlightened nation. “If America has not yet seen a black priest,” Tolton said, “it must see one now.”
He endured three years of racism in Quincy before “Good Father Gus” moved to Chicago. He is buried in Quincy.
Paprocki said the diocese is exploring establishing a shrine to Tolton, perhaps in a now-closed Quincy church.
“From slave to priest. That’s an amazing American story,” Murphy said. “He went from having lived amid the greatest sin in American culture to being a minister that would address that kind of moral crime, a fully scoped life. Prisoner to liberator.”
Dives into murky water, painstaking examinations of relics and technical data and rigorous peer review led historians and archaeologists to confirm last week that wreckage found in the Mobile River in 2018 was indeed the Clotilda, the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.
An event heralding the discovery Thursday afternoon in the Mobile community of Africatown made clear that much work remains. The Alabama Historical Commission and others working on the project must decide how much can be salvaged, whether it can be brought ashore or if it should be left in place and protected.
Perhaps more important: How can the interest and publicity engendered by the discovery of the Clotilda be harnessed to foster economic and racial justice in the community?
Anderson Flen, a descendent of one of the Clotilda’s enslaved, believes the historic find can spark new discussions on those topics.
“Number one is talking and communicating honestly and transparently,” Flen said after a news conference on the effort to confirm the discovery. “The other thing is beginning to make some tangible things happen in this community.”
Another Clotilda survivor’s descendant, Darron Patterson, said Africatown residents “have to come together as a group to make sure we’re on one page, of one accord, to make sure this community survives.”
Thursday’s gathering at a community center drew roughly 300 people. Government officials taking part included U.S. Rep Bradly Byrne — who said he would work to help make Africatown “a place that people all over the world are going to want to come to” — and a representative from Sen. Doug Jones’ office. A statement celebrating the discovery from Gov. Kay Ivey was read by historic commission chairman Walter Givhan.
Officials credited Alabama journalist Ben Raines with renewing interest in locating the remains of the Clotilda. Raines had reported that he believed he had located the ship last year. Even though the ship he found turned out not to be the Clotilda, it led to the commission’s and other organizations’ efforts to locate the Clotilda’s wreckage.
A team of maritime archaeology experts conducted an assessment of a previously unsearched area of the Mobile River and historical research and an archaeological survey revealed up to two dozen 19th and 20th century vessels. One closely matched characteristics of the Clotilda and peer-reviewed findings led researchers to conclude that the wreckage is the Clotilda.
Officials have said they are working on a plan to preserve the site where the ship was located. Beyond that, the ship’s future is uncertain.
“This is the point where we pause,” Givhan told reporters. “We have to do our duty in protecting it. That’s job one right now.”
More experts will be brought in to determine the next move. “There are several options, obviously, as to whether you leave it in place, whether you bring up certain artifacts,” Givhan said.
James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist who helped lead the team that verified the wreck as the Clotilda, recently told The Associated Press that the ship’s remains are delicate but the potential for both research and inspiration are enormous.
Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of one of the Africans held captive aboard the ship, said she wants to somehow honor both the ship’s human cargo and the hard work of them and their descendants in forming Africatown .
Jerry Ward, an African American man who said he lives near Africatown, said he’d like to see the ship reconstructed as part of an effort to educate people about its history. “To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you come from,” Ward said.
The commission said organizations involved in the research and survey efforts include the Black Heritage Council, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, the Slave Wrecks Project, Diving with a Purpose, SEARCH Inc. and the National Park Service.
From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Leola Robinson Simpson, Annie McDaniel, Chandra Dillard, Rosalyn Henderson Myers, Patricia Henegan, Krystle Simmons and Wendy Brawley pose for a photo outside the House chamber at the Statehouse Wednesday, May 8, 2019 in Columbia, S.C. This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women are serving in the House of Representatives simultaneously. Not pictured is Rep. J. Anne Parks. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
During the last week of this year’s legislative session in South Carolina, eight of the state’s nine African American women serving in the House gathered to record a historic moment.
This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women have served simultaneously in the House of Representatives, a moment shared among a sisterhood of women who say their primary mission is to serve and create positive change.
“I think we are uniquely situated to do that,” Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins said of her eight African American female colleagues. “It’s the most that has ever served In the House at one time, and I think we can be and have been a formidable force.”
They wanted to take a photo near a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator and stateswoman born a daughter of former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina as a nod to how African American women have always had a significant impact on South Carolina’s history. And they also strive to have their own impact in the legislature.
Joining Brawley are Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, Chandra Dillard of Greenville, Rosalyn D. Henderson-Myers of Spartanburg, Patricia Henegan of Bennettsville, Annie E. McDaniel of Winnsboro, J. Anne Parks of Greenwood, Leola Robinson Simpson of Greenville, and Krystle Simmons of Ladson. They are women who serve all parts of the state, representing almost every industry including a magazine CEO, social worker, higher education administrators, attorney, retired educator and consultant, funeral director and engineer planner.
African American women have been serving in the South Carolina House for just 44 years. Juanita C.W. Goggins of York County was elected in 1975, serving for five years. Her achievements in improving education and public health paved the way for African American women to pick up the torch and serve behind her.
From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Wendy Brawley and Krystle Simmons meet during recess inside the House chamber of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
“I don’t know if I digested how big this is,” Rep. Krystle Simmons said. “I just hope that little brown boys and girls, young girls, college age, I hope they look at me and say because of her, we can.”
Simmons just completed her first year in the legislature and the Ladson Democrat said she is not concerned about re-election but is instead focusing on inspiring young women and minorities to be civically engaged.
The mother of five has already left an impact on some lawmakers. When the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood came up, Simmons spoke of how she benefited from services other than abortion that the organization offers – such as parenting classes, which she attended after becoming a new mother.
After her remarks, some lawmakers approached her and expressed their support behind the scenes.
“There were so many that came up to me after that talk that said they wanted to be with me, but couldn’t,” Simmons said. “My problem is that you’re making an uneducated decision because you’re basing your decision off of hearsay.”
Simmons flipped her district, beating a Republican who has long held the seat.
One of the lawmakers made history of her own. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was given the honor in January of gaveling in the 123rd session of the South Carolina House as the longest serving member of the chamber. She is also the longest serving African American in the state’s history, elected in 1992 having spent years behind the scenes encouraging other women to run for office. The Orangeburg lawmaker said the House is not the same place it was when she started.
“I would like to see a return of actual debate of issues. I want to return to when we were more focused on substance than symbol,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I know that my value, my message is not for the 123 people sitting in that room.”
Recognizing the contributions of African Americans is important for the Orangeburg lawmaker who said she helped spearhead efforts to construct and dedicate the African American monument on the Statehouse grounds. That and the removal of the Confederate flag are vivid memories, both representing some progress in the state.
“Just the symbolism of that is just great,” Cobb-Hunter said of seeing an image of an empty pole laying on the Statehouse grounds in 2015. “That’s a vivid memory when we took the flag off the front lawn.”
Though some progress is evident in the position and power African Americans now hold in the Legislature, Brawley acknowledges there is still more work that needs to be done. The Hopkins lawmaker said the biggest challenge some of her colleagues face is navigating a system designed to help the people in power ignore legislation they don’t like with little accountability.
“Good ideas that can help advance the cause of South Carolina sit in a languishing committee because we are not willing to be nonpartisan enough to push good legislation,” Brawley said. “None of us are afraid to speak up and give voice to issues that will make a difference.”
And whether it was their first year or their 28th year in the Legislature, they are passionate about their service and the difference they can make.
“We have to fight. We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got,” Brawley said. “I don’t see going to the General Assembly as lightening the load. It means the responsibility is probably going to be a little harder.”
A Bible on display at a memorial at New Hampshire’s veterans hospital should be removed because it is a violation of the First Amendment, a U.S. Air Force veteran said in a federal lawsuit Tuesday.
The Bible was carried by a prisoner of war in World War II and became part of the Missing Man Table honoring missing veterans and POWs at the entranceway of the Manchester VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday the table was sponsored by a veterans group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network.
The lawsuit filed in Concord by James Chamberlain against the center’s director, Alfred Montoya, says the Bible’s inclusion is in violation of the Constitution. The First Amendment stipulates “that the government may not establish any religion. Nor can the government give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others,” according to the suit.
Chamberlain, a devout Christian, said in the lawsuit the table should be a memorial to all who have served, regardless of their beliefs. The suit said the original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and didn’t include a Bible as one of the items.
The medical center initially removed the Bible in January after another group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, objected, saying it got complaints from 14 patients who felt it violated the First Amendment. A variety of religions were represented among the 14.
But the Bible reappeared on the table in February. It had been removed “out of an abundance of caution,” Curt Cashour, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. Afterward, the medical center received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and others, “many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility” in protest, Cashour said.
After consulting with lawyers, the medical center put the Bible back on the table indefinitely, Cashour said. He called the table “a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community.”
He apologized to those were offended by the Bible’s “incorrect” removal.
But Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said it is the presence of the Bible that is offensive.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful, dishonorable, and most importantly, it’s illegal,” he said.
The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.