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THE GRIOT’S CROSS | U.S. Black Catholic nuns are overlooked desegregation pioneers

As a public-facing historian of Black women, I have always relished the fact that Black History Month and Women’s History Month are successive in the United States.

Having 59 (or in leap years, 60) straight days to amplify the stories of those who made monumental contributions to society, but who remain hidden figures to general audiences, has always been an exciting time.

This is especially true when I get to disseminate new knowledge about the nation’s Black Catholic nuns and their many unsung efforts in the long fight to desegregate American institutions.

During the Jim Crow era, members of the nation’s African-American sisterhoods quietly desegregated (or reintegrated) several Catholic colleges and universities, including Villanova College (now University), Saint Louis University and The Catholic University of America.

Members of the Black orders and Black Catholic women and girls who desegregated white sisterhoods also became many of the first Black teachers, principals, professors, nurses and hospital heads at a host of previously all-white Catholic institutions across the country.

In 1956, Frances Millicent Douglass, the first Black Daughter of the Heart of Mary, broke one of the nation’s most difficult racial and gender barriers when she became the first African-American woman to chair a department at a historically white institution of higher education.

That September, Sister Douglass became the first African-American department head at DePaul University in Chicago, where she was one of only 19 women faculty members and likely the institution’s only Black faculty member.

Affectionately known as “Frankie,” Sister Douglass, a former case worker for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn, New York, and a former instructor at Xavier University and St. Joseph’s College for Women (now Mount St. Joseph University) in Cincinnati, was recognized as a distinguished leader in her field and was described by those who knew as “quiet, unobtrusive and brilliant.”

At the end of her term as the chair of DePaul’s psychology department, Sister Douglass made history again when she became the first woman of color to head a department at Marquette University, where she led the Jesuit institution’s psychology department from 1962 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1971.

Sister Douglass remained a full-time faculty member at Marquette until her retirement in 1978 and worked as a part-time instructor at the institution from 1978 to 1982.

Because members of her order did not wear habits, Sister Douglass’ status as a nun was unknown to most, if not all, of her colleagues.

Although Sister Douglass had a groundbreaking career in higher education, it was only a continuation of a series of pathbreaking firsts that she achieved in her lifetime.

After she desegregated her order in 1946, Douglass seemingly became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Fordham University. She was also the first African-American Catholic nun to earn a doctorate degree.

Sister Douglass died in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on Jan. 2, 1990, at age 76.

Black sisters’ desegregation triumphs not only remind us that seemingly insurmountable barriers and obstacles can be overcome, but also provide the intellectual armor and spiritual nourishment needed to withstand the concerted efforts of those who proclaim that marginalized peoples have no history worth remembering and thus no rights worth respecting or preserving.

In the face of some current campaigns opposed to historical truth-telling in schools and public venues, identifying and championing history’s hidden figures has taken on a new level of significance and urgency.

As such, I hope the Church and nation at large will join me in proudly saying the name and telling the story of Sister Frances Millicent Douglass in honor of Black and Women’s History months in 2022.

Sister Douglass’ pathbreaking life and career deserve to be widely known and championed as we do for our most famous freedom fighters.

Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Dayton and wrote a book about Black Catholic sisters.

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