Matthew J. CRESSLER. Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration. New York: New York University Press, 2017. pp. 288. $30 pb. ISBN 978-1-4798-8096-6. Reviewed by Carol Ann MACGREGOR, Loyola University New Orleans, New Orleans, LA 70118.


The Archdiocese and city of Chicago, in the aftermath of the great migration and in the midst of the civil rights movement, serves as the scene for Matthew Cressler’s examination of the understudied field of Black Catholic life. The general gap in the literature on Black Catholics is remarkable given that while they are a minority within a minority there are more Black Catholics that members of the historically black AME church. Whereas much of what does exist on Catholicism and race focuses on white Catholic encounters with other racial and ethnic groups, in this volume Black Catholics are the focus.

Cressler examines the unique place of Black Catholics as both Black AND Catholic and explores the connection between Black Catholicism and Black Power as outlined by the Black Panther movement. In both, African Americans in Chicago found a place “above the color line.” While Catholicism often served to distinguish Black Catholics from others, this effect was mitigated in some ways by racism found in churches. This reached a critical point in the 1960s, as Cressler writes, “although there may not have been any Black Catholic equivalent to Martin Luther King, soon enough there were Black Catholic Malcom X’s, StokelyCarmicheals, and Angela Davises” (p.13).

Cressler begins with an examination of how the institutional church considered the South Side of Chicago a missionary field. Urban missionaries drove conversions of African American migrants who arrived from the South to neighborhoods with an extensive Catholic built environment. Schools in particular drove conversions and these converts sustained major parishes as other ethnic groups moved to the suburbs. The legacy of the “save the heathens” approach would spark some of the revolution of the 1960s that serves as the core story in the book. Cressler manages to walk a fine line between reporting and judging noting for example, that “sincere desire on the part of missionaries to save Black souls was not mutually exclusive with white paternalism or racism” (p. 39).

Looking at the experience of converts, Cressler suggests that while there may have been pragmatic concerns about social mobility and the notion that the universalism of the church might be a solution to the race problem, there were also profound religious and liturgical experiences that have been lost in the literature on conversion in this particular context. Cressler examines an example of one parish’s “living stations of the cross” suggesting that it illustrates “the ways in which Black Catholics cultivated religious difference from the new sacred order around them” (p.106). He is also careful to not paint all Black Catholics with a broad brush noting the tension between those who wanted a “quiet dignity” and those who pressed for liturgical change.

The 1960s changed things across the country and for African Americans in Chicago there is a convergence of Black Power and Vatican II. Self-determination and self-definition became an important project for Black Catholics in the city. The fight for these things led to several skirmishes between local church and school leaders and the larger community of Black Catholics. One story central to the book involves archdiocesan efforts to move a popular pastor. In one example, Archbishop Cody simply thought that the Black parishioners wanted a Black pastor but the parishioners made clear that their pastor’s activism was at least as important as his race.
Previous work has largely conflated racial justice and interracial liberalism and this book examines how this view largely obscures the important lived experience and political and religious preferences of Black Catholics in Chicago. While it is easy to wish that this book made larger claims about Black Catholics in other cities like Detroit or New Orleans, there is little to fault in the analysis itself and this remarkable first book will be of interest to historians and sociologists of race and religion for many years to come.