By Stuart Hamilton
A couple of years ago an interview clip with Academy Award winning Actor Morgan Freeman went viral because of his views on Black History Month. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” he asked before stating flatly, “Black history is American history.” Good point: Every day of every month should be an occasion to champion the men and women of color who have contributed to American culture. However, in the world of Roman Catholicism, as with liturgical feast days and memorials, Black History Month can be a special opportunity to shine a light on black heroes of the faith.
Heroes such as Servant of God Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first black priest born in the United States. Tolton was born a slave in 1854, but after his father died fighting as a union soldier in the civil war, his mother fled north to find freedom for her children. They made a home for themselves in Quincy, Illinois, where, because he wasn’t allowed to attend the local Catholic school, Augustus was privately tutored by the Srs of Notre Dame.
Soon Augustus expressed interest in becoming a priest, but in spite of the endorsement of Frs McGuire and Richardt, no United States seminaries would take him. They began his Theological studies privately until, in 1878, Augustus was accepted to study in Rome. After being ordained a priest he came back to serve in Quincey.
He faced rampant racism, including from some of the local priests who had become jealous of Augustus’ skill as a homilist which was attracting white parishioners as well as black. Augustus’ reaction to blatant and public bigotry from his brother priests was always marked with charity and patience giving him the reputation of a truly holy man. He was eventually re-assigned to Chicago where he faithfully served his parish to the point of exhaustion. He died of heatstroke in 1897. His cause of canonization opened in 2010.
Stories of faith such as these serve not only to remind us of the past, but also to model for us ways in which we can make a difference in struggles that people go through today. Their examples inspire us to find our part to play in our nation’s struggle to find healing. Go here to find more inspiring stories about heroes of the faith that made a mark in healing racial divides.