Women Who Changed the Church Lecture: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle

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Mary Ward Lecture 2022

Dr Shannen Dee Williams discusses the history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States, hailing them as the “forgotten prophets” of Catholicism and democracy. Drawing on oral histories and previously sealed church records, Williams demonstrates how master narratives of women’s religious life and Catholic commitments to racial and gender justice fundamentally change when the lives and experiences of African American nuns are taken seriously. For Black Catholic women and girls, embracing the celibate religious state constituted a radical act of resistance to white supremacy and the sexual terrorism built into chattel slavery and segregation. Williams shows how Black sisters—such as Sister Mary Antona Ebo, who was the only Black member of the inaugural delegation of Catholic sisters to travel to Selma, Alabama, and join the Black voting rights marches of 1965—were pioneering religious leaders, educators, healthcare professionals, desegregation foot soldiers, Black power activists, and womanist theologians. In the process, Williams calls attention to Catholic women’s religious life as a stronghold of white supremacy and racial segregation—and thus an important battleground in the long African American freedom struggle.

Date/ Time: 10 March 2022, 2:00pm to 3:30pm

Cost: Free

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Women Who Changed the Church is a series of 8 lectures during the Spring of 2022 which showcase the varied voices of women throughout history and up to today who have enriched and transformed church practice, communities, and ideas. This series culminates in our annual Mary Ward Lecture.

We offer 3 intensive workshops alongside the lectures to discuss the topics presented each week in smaller, focused groups. These workshops compose one module of our women-only Catholic Theology and Practice certificate programme. The all-in cost for all 8 lectures plus the workshops is £180. See our website for more information or contact apply@mbit.cam.ac.uk.

About the Lecturer:

Dr. Shannen Dee Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dayton. A historian of the African American experience with research and teaching specializations in women’s, religious and Black freedom movement history, Williams is the author of the forthcoming book, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle, which will be published by Duke University Press in April 2022.

Dr. Williams’s research been supported by a host of fellowships, grants and awards, including a Scholar-in-Residence Fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Fellowship in Religion and Ethics from the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation, an Albert J. Beveridge Grant from the American Historical Association and the John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award from the American Catholic Historical Association. Her work has been published in the Journal of African American History, American Catholic Studies, the Washington Post, America Magazine, and the National Catholic Reporter.

A Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, Dr. Williams also authors the award-winning column, “The Griot’s Cross,” published by the Catholic News Service.

Selected publications

Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle (Duke University Press, April 2022)

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