Catholic News Service
It only seems ironic that a new book that tells the story of Daniel Rudd, the black Catholic journalist of the late 19th century, has been written by someone who is not black, not Catholic and not a journalist.
But, like Rudd and his newspaper, the American Catholic Tribune, the Rev. Gary B. Agee sought answers to vexing questions about the nature of racial equality and how it can be achieved.
“I was working in my Church of God of Anderson, Ind. It’s a small Protestant organization,” said Rev. Agee in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service from his home in Eaton, Ohio, near Dayton.
“I was going to graduate school. I’ve been interested in (the topic of) race and the church. In our church, our primary charism is unity. But in my community we have parallel ministerial groups — African-American churches in the Cincinnati district and … essentially white churches” elsewhere in southwest Ohio, he said.
In his inquiry, Rev. Agee read “The History of Black Catholics in the United States,” written by a black Benedictine priest, Father Cyprian Davis. In that book, Father Davis wrote about Rudd and his aspirations for equality in post-Civil War America, both in U.S. society and within the Catholic Church.
Mesmerized by what he read, Rev. Agee conducted voluminous research into Rudd’s life. He read every edition of the American Catholic Tribune, which Rudd published between 1886 and 1897, still known to exist — more than 250 issues.
From that came his biography, “A Cry for Justice: Daniel Rudd and His Life in Black Catholicism, Journalism, and Activism, 1854-1933.” It was published in the fall by the University of Arkansas Press.
“I was fascinated by this guy,” Rev. Agee said. “He was a prophetic voice calling its tradition to live up to its teaching: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man ± a cardinal piece of Catholic teaching.”
He read each of the 256 copies of the American Catholic Tribune. “My dissertation adviser told me I’m the only guy who ever read it, ‘so read all of it to say that you’ve done it,’” Rev. Agee said.
From all that reading, the author learned that Rudd was an optimist by nature, hoping that racial equality would come. But Rev. Agee said Rudd “wasn’t naive. He understood there were Catholics who weren’t practicing what they were preaching. … He knew there were Catholics who needed to be bought back.”
“There were these sources that suggest that Rudd’s circulation at this paper was 10,000,” Rev. Agee said. “That’s an extraordinarily large newspaper (for its time). “That would make it one of the largest black newspapers in the country.”
Rudd was doing more than running a newspaper. He was also a key figure in what was then called the Colored Catholic Congress.
“In 1889, Daniel Rudd called together the very first National Black Catholic Congress,” says the website of the congress, which has its headquarters in Baltimore. “Distinguished men of African descent came from all over the United States to participate in this historic event. President Grover Cleveland invited them to the White House for a meeting. Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized black priest ordained for the United States of America, was present and celebrated High Mass.”
The congress, which further honors Rudd by calling its publication the African-American Catholic Tribune, added that Rudd “orchestrated five Black Congresses in his time,” although Rev. Agee said he has doubts as to the extent of Rudd’s participation in the last two, based on what he read on microfilm from the American Catholic Tribune.
Ultimately, the newspaper folded. Rev. Agee places the blame for that on what he called a misguided move from Cincinnati, where there were 14,000 black Catholics, to Detroit, where there were perhaps 2,000 — and where another black newspaper had ceased publication not long before.
Publication may have been suspended to accommodate the move, but Rev. Agee said he cannot be sure of this since, with several missing issues around the time of the move, there is no way to know when those issues were published. A national economic slowdown further hurt matters. Then there were the Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities, upheld by the Supreme Court’s in its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which made it a far tougher task to gain equality.
Rev. Agee, who been teaching church history for a number of years at the Anderson University School of Theology as an adjunct faculty member, said some issues Rudd raised in the American Catholic Tribune find parallels today.
“The whole jobs thing, the whole African-Americans in education issue — that’s probably the best one to start with,” he said. “We talk about the failing rates of many of our schools. Oftentimes minorities are forced to attend these schools by where they’re residing. He editorialized about this. African-Americans deserve the opportunity to get an education, and he wrote about this.
“He even took to task Catholic leaders,” Rev. Agee added, paraphrasing a common Rudd theme: “African-Americans can’t get into Catholic schools in places like Washington, D.C., so what gives here?”
“A Cry for Justice” (256 pp.) retails for $39.95 and can be purchased through the University of Arkansas Press website, www.uapress.com, or from major online booksellers.