A Cloud of witnesses: African-American Catholic life in Cincinnati, the bad and the good
The following testimonies are excerpted from “Tracing Your Catholic Roots” second edition, published in 1990 and 2007 by the Office of African-American Catholic Ministries for National Black Catholic History Month. A shorter version appeared in our print edition.
In the seminary when boys live together, sleep, work, play and pray together, they cannot help becoming acquainted with each other thereby dropping all prejudices that might have been entertained beforehand. The book that before was judged by its cover is judged rather by what it contains. When a seminarian goes home for the first time, the first question usually asked by inquisitive relatives and friends are, “When did you get home?” and “When are you going back?” In my case there was usually another question asked, “How did the White [sic] boys treat you?” Such a question might seem strange to some people. On the contrary, it is not strange at all; it is quite a natural one, since today so much racial conflict prevails. Yet I can say with a sincere and grateful heart that here I have been treated by the students and faculty alike better than I can recall being treated any place else, even at places entirely Colored. I know that to many this indeed is a ‘strange saying;” by the unity in striving for one goal, and in working for one Master, we are bound together in one cause; we are spiritually in one. Where this is a spiritual oneness or unity, there is no physical separation of race.
Would to God that there were more Colored seminarians here studying to be priests. I say this not because I am lonesome for the companionship of others of my race, for true companionship does not consist of racial bonds, but in the virtues, especially charity. I say this because I wish that there might be unity between my Church and my race, that there be not the Colored and the White, and the Chinese Churches, but that there may be one universal, on Catholic Church; in the words of Christ himself, ‘that they may all be one…’
— Father Clarence Joseph Rivers (then a seminarian) in “The Catholic Telegraph,” July 1949
I attended Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary from the Kindergarten to Eighth Grade. I married my husband John Housoton in my parent’s living room shortly after I graduated from the eighth grade. I wore the dress I had wron to my eighth grade graduataion. We were married for 35 years until his death in 1978…
I remember that during the Great Flood of 1937, the Ohio River reached the front steps of Saint Joseph Church. Cincinnati has always been a great city but there have always been a few people who try to make it unsafe. After my grandfather became a free man, he served as an assistant helper with the police in Cincinnait. He helped to break up alcohol smugglers and some of the gangs in the area.
I was baptized and confirmed by Fr. Clarence Joseph Rivers III. During the Confirmation, he slapped me so hard that I balled up my fists to hit him, and he said, ‘No, no, I was just knocking the devil out of you…’
— Sadie Houston (then age 82)
I joined the Air Force in 1955. I scored high on the placement test and was the first black man assigned to train as a bomb navigator/radar specialist. The training base was in Denver, Colo., but they didn’t send me to Denver. They sent me to Biloxi, Miss., because I’m black. At that time racism was ‘in your face,’ I had never been treated with such nastiness, and it made me bitter. One of the worst, most hateful things that ever happened to me was in Abilene, Tex. I thought that if I gave church another shot, it would help me, plus I was lonely and wanted to be a part of the community. In my West End experience, the church is where you went to meet nice people.
Well, I went to the Catholic church, and the white priest would not serve me Communion. He told me, ‘We don’t serve coloreds here.’ I was shocked, embarrassed, humiliated and furious! More than anything I was so hurt; I didn’t know what to do. I turned around and walked out of that church and vowed not to step foot in church again…
After I was discharged from the military, the civil right movement was in full force, and so was I. I would’ve thrown a Molotov cocktail to blow something up in a minute. Church was the furthest thing from my mind, and I struggle, I wondered, ‘Where do I fit in this world? No matter what I do, nothing changes…’
Through adversity, isolation, and downright rejection, once I turned back to the Lord, worshipping in the Catholic Church, I was able to bring the culmination of all my experience with me. The Catholic Church is a universal spiritual community that affords individuals the opportunity to utilize what is God-given.
I knew it was the Lord’s divine plan for me. I hooked back up. I saw that Jesus did not separate himself from the community, but did His work within the community, and so would I. I realized that from childhood to adulthood, the Lord was developing me to be in this church… so that I could tell folks that anyone can experience the presence of God at any time, in any place.
— Deacon Raphael Simmons (ordained in 1979)
The First Baptist Church in our neighborhood offered movies on Monday nights for 20 cents. My friends and I always went but never missed our classes at St. Richard of Chichester.
I like order and stuff and appreciation the discipline and organization of the Catholic Church. It is not only a religion; Catholicism is a way of life…
Back then they had all of that Latin business going on (give me a break). I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but I stayed. I knew that the Lord was present.
Catholicism is a part of my life. I ended up raising in my three children alone and could not have done it without faith. I have always had a belief and faith that thigs will work out. That is what the Catholic Church has done for me.
— Lillian Kimbrough
I began visiting the St. Paul A.M.E. Church on Clark Street. I joined the youth choir and began attending church on a more consistent basis. I felt quite comfortable and at home at last. It was there that I recall a strange experience that had a profound effect on the rest of my life.
I was sitting in a pew and paying close attention to the pastor’s sermon when I heard a faint ‘inner voice’ say to me, ‘Young man I am going to use you in the same way someday.’ I tried to suppress the idea but the harder I tried, the more it became even more real…
One day [a priest who worked with young men who played basketball at the St. Martin de Porres Center in the West End] asked me if I was interested in learning about the Catholic Church. My friend and I began to attend classes once a week. After several months, we were ready to be baptized. When I broke the news to my mother, she responded, ‘What’s the matter, aren’t the Baptist and Methodist churches good enough for you?’ I explained that it was not a matter of being ‘good enough,’ rather it was a matter of being the right place for me…
— Father William Cross (ordained in 1974)
For more coverage, see:
Why we celebrate National Black Catholic History Month
Cincinnati Black Catholic History driving pilgrimage
Photos from our Black Catholic History Month collage