Black History Month February was recognized by US President Gerald Ford in 1976 calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
An annual observance like this is traced to an annual commemoration that began in 1915 following the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution abolishing slavery in the United States, and later Negro History Week going back to 1926. Other countries around the world including Canada and the UK also devote a month to celebrating black history.
Today, Black History Month is a time to honor the contributions and legacy of African Americans as educators, engineers, people involved in the various arts, and the sciences, as civil rights pioneers, as religious leaders, sports figures, musicians, architects and more.
Annually with this commemoration, men and women who deserve mention are raised up who are well known and others who have passed into obscurity and are only recently recognized for their gifts as we discover them from archives, history books, libraries and the heroes and heroines of local communities, to say nothing of those who have been deliberately erased from the cornerstones of the American landscape.
One of those obscure figures come to light in recent years is a priest of our Archdiocese of Chicago, Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), who was born into slavery by reason of his parents being enslaved on two neighboring farms located in Brush Creek, Missouri.
In the middle of our nation’s Civil War and upon the decree of Emancipation by President Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, with his mother and two siblings he escaped from the Catholic farmer who owned the Toltons, hunted by Confederate bounty hunters and eventually crossing in a rowboat the treacherous waters of the Mississippi River to arrive at the free state of Illinois. Gus Tolton’s father had escaped earlier to join up with black troops newly established on the Union side, but he died shortly thereafter.
Several priests and religious sisters tutored Augustus when schools denied him an education because of the color of his skin. Franciscan friars gave him a college scholarship and therefrom maneuvered his acceptance at a prestigious seminary in Rome where he studied for six years along with other students from around the world preparing to work at mission stations in far off lands.
Father Tolton returned to Quincy as a newly ordained priest the summer of 1886 to a situation of mixed mood that was not always complimentary of him and his priestly service. From his childhood through his adolescence and young adulthood Tolton was forced to navigate the choppy waters of racial acceptance that saw him being slighted and pushed around and abused with ugly words; yet appreciated by others for his open and indiscriminate temperament that welcomed any and all, black or white. With these traits of person Tolton faced the unreadiness of society and the Church which saw him after three years expelled from his first assignment at St. Joseph mission church in Quincy Illinois. Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago welcomed Father Gus to carry on work with black Catholics here.
He served in Chicago the last eight years of his priesthood. Actually, Father Augustus Tolton is known as the first priest of African descent to be ordained by the Catholic Church for service in the US.
Remarkably, despite the ill treatment he received in Quincy he prevailed upon his mother to ensure that when that time came he was to be buried in Quincy, the town he loved and its people despite those who were not so open to him or found his priestly work an obstruction to the prevailing racial mood of the times, namely, that white and black people were to be kept separate from one another.
In this, Father Tolton proved a pioneer of racial reconciliation and integration, a symbol of the virtues of priesthood and the proclamation of the gospel injunction of love of neighbor and service.
Father Tolton provides an example of how we can get through protracted disappointment in life with our faith, our hope and love found intact after the example of Jesus who forgave his enemies from the cross.
Father Tolton’s cause for canonization as a saint is pending since 2010 in Rome. Pope Francis dubbed him “Venerable” Father Tolton in June 2019. Pray, that we might see one day soon his name mentioned at the altar with all the other saints.
Bishop Joseph N Perry
Archdiocese of Chicago