A conversation with Davis Prize recipient Leah Mickens

Author: Jacqueline Willy Romero

Mickens 2022interview Ftrimg

Leah Mickens is the August Wilson Project Archivist at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2021, she won the inaugural Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize for her book project, In the Shadow of Ebenezer: A Black Catholic Parish in the Age of Civil Rights and Vatican II (New York University Press, forthcoming). In advance of the book’s publication, Jacqueline Willy Romero corresponded with Mickens to discuss her research and the Davis Prize.

Jacqueline Willy Romero: Your forthcoming book focuses on the oldest historically Black Catholic Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Previous scholars have researched the Civil Rights Movement and Vatican II by themselves, but your research through this parish focuses on connecting them. What do scholars learn when putting these two major moments in history in conversation with each other? What inspired you to connect them?

Leah Mickens: I was first inspired to study this topic when reading In the Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America by Colleen McDannell. The author examines the effects of the Council on American Catholicism by showing how what it meant to be Catholic evolved during the lives of her parents and grandparents. I thought it was an interesting framing device, but the book relies heavily on the “Immigrant Church” narrative which assumes that the default American Catholic is a “white ethnic” residing in the Midwest or Northern cities. I didn’t see the experiences of Black Catholics, especially those in the South, reflected in those pages. I don’t want to single out McDannell’s work in particular, since I feel like almost all writing about the Catholic Church in the United States ignores Black Catholics and assumes that white Catholics are normative. This is particularly true when one reads polemics about the supposedly negative effects of Vatican II that presuppose that pre-Vatican II “white ethnic” Catholics lived in pious outposts that were ruined by “liberal” bishops and Black “heretics” demanding the integration of these neighborhoods. I think for many white conservative and traditionalist Catholics, the fact that Vatican II and the Civil Rights Movements happened at the same time indicated that both the secular and ecclesiastic worlds were falling into chaos. This in turn led me to speculate how Black Catholics in the United States interpreted Vatican II and the Civil Rights era. 

I think the main thing that scholars can learn when examining Vatican II and the Civil Rights Movement together is how race, culture, and region color how people think about and embody their religious beliefs. John McGreevy sort of touches on this topic in Parish Boundaries and so does Robert Orsi in his work on Italian American Catholics. However, I think the ways in which race influences how religion is manifested really become apparent when you study Black Catholics in the South in the pre-Vatican II era. Before the Council, Our Lady of Lourdes would have seemed like any other parish in the United States. There was a Sunday Low Mass, the odd High Mass on major feast days, processions, devotional organizations, and a parish school. But in many other ways, Our Lady of Lourdes was quite different from majority white parishes. 

Ollschool Webimg
The former Our Lady of Lourdes School (now the Katharine Drexel Community Center), constructed in 1912. The building’s first floor initially served as the parish church.

Unlike the oft-discussed pre-Vatican II white Catholic ghetto, Protestantism would have been a constant presence for the parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes. For example, most of the families who patronized the Our Lady of Lourdes School were Protestant. There was a brief period of time in the early 1960s when a slim majority of the students were Catholic, the result of the second generation of converts having children, but that era was really an outlier. Our Lady of Lourdes members also routinely frequented Protestant churches, because having membership in one church while visiting many others was a tradition throughout the South. Protestant churches such as Big Bethel AME also hosted various secular events for the wider Black community, such as concerts and lectures. Similarly, many if not most of the Black Protestants on Auburn Avenue had a connection to the Catholic Church through Our Lady of Lourdes. Since parks and other public facilities were segregated, the playground at the Our Lady of Lourdes School was open to all Auburn Avenue children, regardless of whether they were students or not. One of these children was Martin Luther King Jr., who often frequented the playground for games of marbles and basketball. The King birth home is actually around the corner from Our Lady of Lourdes, so he almost certainly would have had friends and acquaintances that attended the parish and/or school. Unlike those residing in the white Catholic ghetto, it would have been impossible for the members of Our Lady of Lourdes to cut themselves off from individuals in mixed marriages or “false churches.” Black Protestants were not some unknowable “Other” for Our Lady of Lourdes members but were rather neighbors and family members who happened to go to other churches. Vatican II and the Civil Rights Movement changed how Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners interacted with Black Protestants and white Catholics, but you can’t understand the manner in which these changes occurred if you don’t understand the role of race, culture, and place. 

Scholars can also learn how events in the secular world influence those in the religious realm and vice versa. For Black Catholics and their white interracialist allies, the changes wrought by Vatican II indicated that the winds of change that the Civil Rights Movement had created in the social order were now extending into the seemingly unchangeable Catholic Church. The Black Catholics I interviewed for this project were unanimous in their stance that Vatican II was a positive development for Church and society. Even the two people whom I interviewed who expressed a personal preference for the Latin Mass didn’t want to go back to the pre-Vatican II period. I don’t think it’s hard to understand why, given that the phrase “pre-Vatican II era” is often a euphemism for the 1950s. For the Black Catholics I interviewed, rolling back the Vatican II reforms not only means going back to older ways of piety, it also means going back to the Jim Crow social and political relations that they detest. 

JWR: Tell us a little bit about your methodological approach. What role did oral histories play in your research? What did archival collections add to the oral histories you conducted?

LM: Because secondary sources on Black Catholics in the United States are sparse, I knew right away that I would have to use oral histories to fill in the gaps in the historical record. I also wanted to have Black people speaking in their own words about their personal experiences and religious beliefs. I conducted oral histories with individuals who were affiliated with Our Lady of Lourdes during the 1960s. As a control group I also interviewed people who were members of the three largest Black Protestant congregations on Auburn Avenue at that time: Ebenezer Baptist Church, Big Bethel AME Church, and Wheat Street Baptist Church. The Black Protestants I interviewed provided me with a greater understanding of the general religious ecology of Auburn Avenue in the Jim Crow era, as well as how they understood Catholicism and Catholics at the time. I was also able to interview an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister, who was principal of the Our Lady of Lourdes School in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All of these perspectives helped give me a fuller portrait of what life was like in mid-20th century Auburn Avenue.

The archival collections I consulted were extremely useful, none more so than the materials from the Archives of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament from the Catholic Historical Research Center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The sisters that were posted to Our Lady of Lourdes wrote extensive annals that described almost everything that happened at the parish from the time the order arrived in Atlanta in 1912 to their departure in 1974. Without access to these annals, I don’t think I could have finished this project. The annals gave a different account of Auburn Avenue, coming from the perspective of white outsiders, who nonetheless were able to gain the trust of Black residents through their sustained action in the community. 

Most of the documents pertaining to the internal workings of the Catholic Church in Atlanta were obtained at the Office of Archives and Records of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. These items include correspondence between diocesan officials, Sunday bulletins, and publications produced by Our Lady of Lourdes itself. Materials related to the Drexel Catholic High School controversy of the late 1960s came from the collection of the same name at the Auburn Avenue Research Library, an institution devoted to the study and preservation of Atlanta’s Black history. The correspondence between Bishop Benjamin Keiley and Cardinal James Gibbons that I cited in the first chapter originated from summaries and quotes provided by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah from their unprocessed bishops’ collections. The bulk of the primary sources pertaining to Archbishop Paul Hallinan and the implementation of the Second Vatican Council in Atlanta, Georgia, originated from the archives of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The materials focusing on Archbishops Eugene Marino and James P. Lyke originated from copies of The Georgia Bulletin housed at the Xavier University of Louisiana Archives and Special Collections. 

JWR: One of your arguments is that “a majority Black parish in the Deep South redefined what it meant to be Black and Catholic during a time period when both identities were in flux.” Can you tell us about the significance of this redefinition and any major changes you identified?

LM: One sees a level of assertiveness among the Black Catholic population during the Civil Rights Movement that would be hard to imagine in earlier decades. For example, seven parishioners at St. Paul of the Cross, Atlanta’s second Black Catholic parish that was formed by dividing Our Lady of Lourdes, sent a letter to Bishop Francis Hyland in 1961. The letter stated that Black Catholics in the city were involved in peaceful civil rights activities, and they sought “an interpretation of diocesan policy with regard to ethnic groups (i.e., an increased effort to desegregate the Catholic school system). It was a very polite letter, but the signatories were clear that they had no intention of stopping their participation in protests. I don’t think that these parishioners would have been this bold were it not for the effect of the Civil Rights Movement.

Unlike in the North, where many Black Catholics were being influenced by Black nationalism, pan-Africanism, and Black Power, Atlanta’s Black Catholics seemed to be more interested in reconciling the Black Church tradition with Catholicism. In the case of Our Lady of Lourdes, this reconciliation didn’t really take place until the early 1990s, about 25 years after Vatican II and the heyday of Black nationalism. It was around 1990 that Our Lady of Lourdes really began to embrace inculturated liturgies in a way that even the other majority Black parishes didn’t. The dynamism and spirit of Our Lady of Lourdes’ liturgies was such that it was not only attracting Black Catholics across metropolitan Atlanta but also Catholics from other races as well. A common criticism of Black inculturated Masses (coming from whites anyway) is that they’re jettisoning Catholic tradition to be pale imitations of Black Baptist churches. But the Black Catholics who attend these inculturated liturgies don’t see it this way. They know that the Catholic Church is quite different in terms of theology, liturgy, and governance than a Baptist Church and could explain the reasons why in much better detail than white Catholics. For the Black members of Our Lady of Lourdes, inculturation allows the liturgy to embrace their whole selves, and not to be bound by this perception that they’re “trying to be white” by being a member of what many Americans perceive to be a ”white church.” The story of Our Lady of Lourdes isn’t just about Black Catholics. Rather, it’s a story that involves Black Catholics, white Catholics (bishops, priests, sisters), Black Protestants, white Protestants, all interacting in a particular cultural and regional context.

JWR: You describe Our Lady of Lourdes as “overshadowed” by nearby Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. famously preached. Are there any key figures who emerged as Catholic leaders at Our Lady of Lourdes? What role did Catholic theology play in predominantly Protestant Atlanta?

LM: Like many historically Black parishes, the leadership at Our Lady of Lourdes traditionally consisted of white priests and sisters. This meant that the racial dynamics of the parish itself, as well as its relationship to the wider community was always going to be very different compared to that of its Protestant neighbors. For the first 50 years of Our Lady of Lourdes’ history, the leaders of the parish were really the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament that staffed the school. They were not only responsible for making Our Lady of Lourdes function on a day to day basis, but they were also the ones who were tasked with acting as a bridge between the majority white Catholic Church in Atlanta and the city’s majority Protestant Black community. For most of the 20th century, Our Lady of Lourdes and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were many Black Atlantans’ only contact with the Catholic Church, which is why their withdrawal from the city was such a catastrophe for the parish and the archdiocese. I believe that the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament were leaders in their own right, even if they exercised their power in a way that was often obscured by a patriarchal framework. In turn, the efforts of the Sisters laid the groundwork for the emergence of Our Lady of Lourdes’ current Black leadership.

I believe that the impact of Catholic theology on Atlanta is most apparent in the way in which Archbishop Paul Hallinan approached the desegregation of Catholic schools in 1962. He used the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ to illustrate that desegregation was consistent with Catholic tradition and theology. The Mystical Body of Christ was an idea that was developed by interwar European theologians and adopted by Black Catholics and white interracialists in the United States. The Mystical Body of Christ doctrine stated that all Catholics were united as one through the Church, which was Christ’s body on earth. The Eucharist dissolved man-made divisions based on race, ethnicity, and nationality. In comparison, racism and other forms of bigotry created dissension and division among the members of Christ’s mystical body, which in turn led to the genocidal violence that characterized World War II. To prepare white students and staff for the desegregation of Catholic schools, Hallinan distributed copies of A Syllabus on Racial Justice, a guide to teaching racial justice from a Catholic perspective for students from seventh to 12th grade. He had actually commissioned the Syllabus in 1961 when he was bishop of Charleston and reused it for the Catholic schools in Atlanta. Given the modern hysteria over anti-racism education in schools, it’s interesting that Hallinan created and implemented a Catholic anti-racism curriculum in the early 1950s with almost no pushback.

JWR: How has receiving the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize impacted this project? Where do you see your future research taking you? 

Davis Webhomepage Img
Father Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.

LM: First, I would like to express my gratitude for receiving the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize. As a result of receiving this award, New York University Press reached out to me about revising my dissertation for publication as a book. The manuscript is currently in the copyediting stage, and it should be out in late fall 2022. The prize money I received helped me to cover some of the costs with licensing the photographs that will be included in the book.

Also, I plan to write an article on the Catholic Colored Clinic and its successor organization, Holy Family Hospital. The Catholic Colored Clinic was originally adjacent to Our Lady of Lourdes, and it was part of a larger mission dedicated to outreach to “the colored.” Eventually the clinic outgrew the Auburn Avenue space, and the Diocese of Atlanta built the all-Black Holy Family Hospital in Southwest Atlanta. I think the story of the Catholic Colored Clinic/Holy Family Hospital can shed more light on the ways in which the Catholic Church tried to perform outreach to the Black community and how those efforts were often marred by paternalistic attitudes. It also illustrates how the Civil Rights Movement and Vatican II challenged these condescending views and forced the Church to reconsider how it approached these charitable endeavors. 

Jacqueline Willy Romero was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center from 2021 to 2022.