This chapter begins with the ten Black bishops declaring in 1984 that Black Catholics should be “authentically Black and truly Catholic.” It contrasts this statement with the story of Mary Dolores Gadpaille, who argued in 1958 that Catholicism “lifted her up above the color line.” It juxtaposes these two examples in order to introduce readers to the central questions that govern the book. Why did tens of thousands of African Americans convert to Catholicism in the middle decades of the twentieth century? What did it mean to be Black and Catholic in the first half of the twentieth century and why did it change so dramatically in the thirty years that separated Gadpaille from the bishops? How would placing Black Catholics at the center of our historical narratives change the ways we understand African American religion and Catholicism in the United States? The chapter situates the book in scholarship and briefly introduces readers to Black Catholic history writ large.
Keywords: African American religion, American Catholicism, American religion, Black Catholicism, Great Migrations, Black Power, civil rights movement, authenticity, Chicago, race