Black History Month in February serves as the nation’s long-standing invitation to its residents to discover the many unsung contributions of Africans and African-descended people to human civilization and progress.
Launched in 1926 as Negro History Week, this annual celebration encourages Americans of all backgrounds to learn Black history as American and world history. It also calls upon us to reject those historical myths and misrepresentations constructed to silence the Black past and America’s foundational sins of anti-Black racism and slavery.
And this includes the Church.
As a frequently lecturer on Black Catholic history, I never cease to be amazed by how often I encounter faithful, religious and lay alike, who sincerely have no knowledge of the Church’s slaveholding past or the roles that Catholics played in the brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade.
From at least 1502 to 1888, European Christians, who were mostly Catholic, violently transported at least 12.5 million African women, men and children from the African continent to the Americas, Europe and other parts of Africa to fuel and sustain four centuries of Atlantic world slavery.
Although the participation in this barbaric trade by Catholics is beyond dispute, it is rarely taught in Catholic schools and religious formation programs.
Indeed, many Catholics can point to Pope Gregory XVI’s 1839 condemnation of the slave trade and slavery in the bull, “In supremo apostolates.” However, few are aware of the 15th century papal bulls, including Pope Nicholas V’s 1452 “Dum Diversas” and Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 “Inter Caetera,” where the popes first authorized the trade’s development and morally sanctioned the perpetual enslavement of Africans and the seizure of “non-Christian” lands.
Even less realize that Pope Gregory XVI’s 1839 condemnation came some 337 years after the trade formally began and 35 years after the success of the Haitian Revolution. Indeed, it was the Haitian Revolution, led by baptized free and enslaved Black Catholics, that cemented the foundation of antislavery throughout Europe’s slave societies in the Americas, not the papacy.
Perhaps most indicative of the silencing of the Church’s slaveholding past and culpability in modern racism, though, is how few Catholics know the story of São Jorge da Mina (St. George’s of the Mine) Castle in present-day Ghana.
Established by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina Castle (as it is commonly known) was the first of more than 60 permanent European-controlled trading posts and slave depots built in West and Central Africa to facilitate the transatlantic trade. It was also the site of the first Roman Catholic chapel erected in sub-Saharan Africa.
For more than 300 years, hundreds of thousands of kidnapped and enslaved Africans traveled through Elmina on their way to America’s slave societies. At the height of the slave trade, approximately 30,000 enslaved Africans passed through Elmina annually where they encountered a host of European traders, priests, soldiers and families who denied their humanity and subjected them to unspeakable acts of trauma and violence.
That Elmina and the Catholic chapel erected at the center of its courtyard directly on top of the structure’s slave dungeon are still standing is one of the great historical treasures of the 21st century.
As we conclude this 95th anniversary of Black History Month, all Catholics must come to understand that they not only have an educational responsibility to learn Black and Black Catholic history, but also a moral responsibility to learn about the long history of anti-Black racism in our Church and among Catholics.
One important way to begin this journey is to make a pilgrimage to Elmina Castle — a UNESCO World Heritage monument since 1979 — and bear witness to the Catholic history and horrors that it preserves.
The story of Elmina Castle — the many crimes against humanity committed there in the name of God — is very much part of the story of the modern Roman Catholic Church.
Williams is the Albert Lepage assistant professor of history at Villanova University. Follow her on Twitter @BlkNunHistorian.