Beginning to research black Catholic history

This semester’s Archives Report from Kevin Cawley offers a tutorial on searching for and finding resources at the Notre Dame Archives, using tools ranging from Google to the detailed finding aids at His report focuses on various materials relevant to black Catholic history.


When you read novels you expect either a first-person narrative (“Call me Ishmael”) or a third-person narrative (“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich”). Now that you can search the Internet, you can easily find examples of the rare second-person narrative—the novel about you. The current wisdom among novelists seems to favor writing in the present tense. But before you read your first second-person novel written in the present tense, you can prepare yourself by reading this account of your preliminary investigation into black Catholic history.


You hear that Notre Dame has acquired the records of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC) , and because of your scholarly interest you want to know more. You start with Google. Your search for “National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus” turns up the organization’s Facebook page, a Wikipedia entry, an article on the Voice of the Faithful website, and a link to the records of the organization in the Archives of the University of Notre Dame. With a click of the mouse you find your way to the finding aid for this collection at Notre Dame.

Immediately, under the heading “Related Material,” you see links to the Joseph M. Davis Papers, the National Office for Black Catholics, and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. You follow the link to the first of these and see that Joseph M. Davis served as the director of the National Office for Black Catholics from 1970 to 1977. Under the heading “Index” you see:


Afro-American Catholics.

Evangelistic work.

Afro-American Catholics—Religious life.

Race relations—Religious aspects—Christianity.


You recognize these as subject headings from the Library of Congress’ classification system. You recall that you have used similar subject headings to extend your search when you have searched for books. You know that you can find current subject headings on the Library of Congress website ( There you discover that the current heading is actually “African American Catholics.” You now have a habit of looking at the subject headings when you find a book that supports your research interests so that you can search using that heading for further pertinent books. Maybe a similar approach will work with archives.


You return to the NBCCC finding aid and see a link to an index that provides chronological and alphabetical access to the contents. Here, however, you notice that the list of files does not use consistent terminology. Though the documents in the collection date no earlier than the second half of the 20th century, in addition to 601 titles using the word “black” you find 36 titles using the word “Negro,” 12 using “African American,” and six using “Afro-American.” Since you have a broad interest in black Catholic history, you realize that when you do keyword searches you will have to think of what words people used in the past. You will not be able to rely on the Library of Congress’ preferred term, “African American Catholics.”


The thought of further searches makes you wonder what else the archives might have on black Catholic history. You click the link to the archives in the top right-hand corner of the index. On left side of the home page for the archives you see a link inviting you to “Search Our Collections.”


Your thoughts about changing terminology have reminded you of the NAACP, and you wonder what evidence you might find of Catholic involvement with that organization. A search for “NAACP” turns up 62 lines, most of which refer to files in over a dozen different collections. Some of them represent Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh’s service on the United States Commission on Civil Rights.


You return to the search page. Under “Advanced Search” you see that you can limit your search to photographs or audio-visual material. When you click on “Advanced Search,” you see that you can also limit your search to a certain decade, or to lines that include a certain exact phrase. You can also exclude lines that contain a certain phrase.


You search for a picture of Daniel Rudd and find that the archives has one. You search for Wilton Gregory and find two files from the NBCCC, one from Notre Dame’s Department of Information Services, one from the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, and one containing an audio cassette from Msgr. Jack Egan. Since personal names appear in many of the folder titles in collections of organizational records or personal papers, you realize that a good knowledge of names of black Catholic leaders will be necessary in your research.


In the right column of the search page you notice “Specialized Indexes” and can see that they generally have to do with Notre Dame history. You also see the word “Calendar,” which seems out of place. But then you click on the link and discover that a calendar is another kind of finding aid, one that provides abstracts of individual documents.


It seems that the Notre Dame Archives calendar includes mainly documents from the 1790s and 1800s. What might you find of interest there? Considering the time period, you search for “Colored” and find many pages of abstracts. A dozen letters have to do with the Colored Congress, part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Catholic Congress associated with the World’s Fair in Chicago.


You wonder how you would order copies of these letters. You click “Contact Us” from the menu on the left. You see that you can email for an answer to this question.


You search the calendar for “Negro” and find a huge number of documents. After you read summaries of a few of the earlier abstracts you search for “Slave.” Again a huge number of documents. Using Ctrl-F (or Command-F) you highlight the word and can skip from one instance to the next. But you will have to come back another day—there is too much here to read now.


You return to the main search page and the menu at the left catches your eye. You see “Digital Collections” and wonder what that might mean. When you click on the link you find a list of Notre Dame publications, some dating from the early years of the University and some almost up to date. You find that you can search these and read issues of the publications in your web browser. When you choose the daily newspaper, the Observer, you find that you can search it via Google. A search for “black history” turns up 279 results.


Near the bottom of the Digital Collections page you also find digitized manuscript collections. The earliest of these allows you to search records of the Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas up to the time of the Louisiana Purchase. This search allows you to see images of the original documents next to the calendar descriptions summarizing the content in English.


Among other collections you also notice the family papers of General William Tecumseh Sherman, including documents dating from the Civil War years and the years of reconstruction. When you take a closer look, you see that many of the letters have been transcribed, and in the list of transcriptions in box nine you can click on links and have access to a search of the texts. You find the word “Negro” in nine places, the word “colored” in six.


Back on the main search page you notice another link to Google. At the bottom of the page a Google search limited to the Notre Dame Archives provides a way of searching the whole website at once. You also find some advice there about limiting the search to finding aids, or to digital collections, or to the calendar. But you have done enough for one day. You began with Google and you end with Google. You search for


“black Catholics” | Negro | “Colored People” | Afro-American | “African American”


and find “About 4,050 results.” Too many for today. But you plan to come back.



Wm. Kevin Cawley

Senior Archivist and Curator of Manuscripts

Archives of the University of Notre Dame