African Americans have been part of the Catholic constituency in America since colonial times. Well-to-do Catholic families and the Jesuits who settled in Maryland held slaves. Many of these slaves converted to the religion of their masters, in this case to Catholicism. However, just as in the colonies and later in the country, they were not treated as equals in the church. Before the Civil War, freed slaves encountered prejudice from the church hierarchy. After the Civil War, segregated parishes arose. In the antebellum period, the Catholic Church did not make much of an effort to convert the Negro population, the majority of whom were located in the South where Protestant churches dominated the religious landscape. New Orleans stands Page 65 | Top of Articleas an exception with its sizable Catholic population. Xavier University of New Orleans testifies to this. Founded in 1915 by Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, it became the first Roman Catholic university for African Americans. St. Louis and Baltimore also had long-standing African-American Catholic populations.
The black Catholic population interrupted the pattern of neighborhoods dominated by European ethnicity. It had neither the numbers nor the ties to clergy and hierarchy that the ethnic communities had. For example, in mid-nineteenth century New York City Irish immigrants, themselves the subjects of exploitation, would regularly discriminate against the free blacks who competed with them for jobs. The conflict peaked in the summer of 1863 when whites rioted and attacked members of the black community.28
John McGreevy, a historian at Notre Dame, chronicles the movement of African Americans from the South to northern cities in Parish Boundaries .29 They received a chilly reception in the church. While many Catholics fought on the side of the North in the Civil War to abolish slavery, they held deep-seated racist views nonetheless. The North supported segregation, and for a long time the church did little to resist or change this social pattern.