Review: A Cry for Justice
Gary B. Agee. A Cry for Justice: Daniel Rudd and His Life in Black Catholicism, Journalism, and Activism, 1854–1933. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2011. xvi + 236 pp. ISBN 978-1-55728-975-9.
When African American Catholics revived the National Black Catholic Congress movement in the late twentieth century, they identified the largely unknown Daniel Rudd (1854–1933) as their founder, despite the century-long gap since the movement Rudd started had last met. Gary Agee’s biography of Rudd draws attention to this important figure, whose work as an editor and activist is significant for those seeking to understand the intersections of race and religion, especially Catholicism, in the late nineteenth century. Rudd was an African American Catholic, born into slavery in Kentucky in 1854. Rudd later moved to Ohio, where founded and edited the American Catholic Tribune (1886–1897), likely the largest and longest enduring newspaper for nineteenth-century black Catholics. He also initiated the Colored Catholic Congress movement, a national gathering of lay black Catholics who met five times between 1889 and 1894. At the turn of the century, after his newspaper failed and the Catholic Congresses ceased to meet, Rudd moved south, first to Mississippi then to Arkansas, where he worked as a manager for prominent black farmers. He made a brief speech at the 1919 NAACP convention, and then died in 1933 in Bardstown, KY, the same town where he grew up. As an African American and Catholic who spent much of his life in the Midwest, Rudd does not represent the typical focus of studies of religion and race in late nineteenth America. Nonetheless, as the sole editor of a widely circulated periodical and initiator of a lay black Catholic movement, Rudd’s story is an important one that has received little scholarly attention. Agee’s biography begins to rectify that neglect.
Any biographer of Rudd faces a formidable challenge. The primary sources are limited in number and in the personal details they disclose. They consist of an incomplete run of Rudd’s American Catholic Tribune (both the earliest and final years are missing) and two books that Rudd published: one detailing the first three Colored Catholic Congresses (1893) and the other a biography of his employer, Scott Bond (1917). None of the publications, nor the handful of extant records Agee has uncovered, provide much information about Rudd. Most of the details of Rudd’s life remain unknown, including his whereabouts for more than a decade after the collapse of the American Catholic Tribune in 1897. In the absence of archival evidence, Agee often resorts to speculation to fill the gaps in Rudd’s life.
For most readers, the greatest strength of Agee’s biography will be its detailed summary of the contents of the American Catholic Tribune. The many extended quotations reveal Rudd’s religious and racial perspectives and the means by which he hoped to achieve equality. Most importantly, Rudd’s advocacy for racial justice was rooted in his Catholic faith. He insisted that Catholicism’s universal claims and world-wide membership offered the best hope for achieving equality for black citizens in the United States. Agee also shows how Rudd’s confidence in the Catholic Church and his concern for equality led him to call for justice on a variety of other issues, from labor and women’s suffrage, to concern for oppression in Africa and South America.
Yet, Rudd’s faith was not blind to his Church’s failures. In his writing, speaking, and especially through the Colored Catholic Congress movement, Rudd insisted the Catholic Church in the United States was not beyond reproach for its failure to achieve racial justice and equality. Inequities in education, both within parochial school and public schools, were especially troubling for Rudd. The Colored Catholic Congress movement (1889–1894) that Rudd helped found, was a forum in which black Catholics could hold their church to account, even as they professed their loyalty to it. Rudd insisted that even if Catholicism was not perfect, it was still better than Protestantism, which Rudd considered less prepared to challenge racial equality both theologically and institutionally.
Agee’s thorough examination of the American Catholic Tribune provides access to a perspective that connected religious belief and racial advocacy differently than African American Protestants in the South. The accumulation of evidence, however, does not always constitute a clear argument. Others will be able to build upon the evidence Agee provides to investigate relevant contexts and comparisons that will identify the extent to which Rudd was a distinctive and/or representative voice among the intersecting circles of African Americans, Catholics, newspaper editors, authors, and businessmen with whom he interacted. Rudd’s work as an independent, rather than officially church-supported editor, as well as his membership in a racially mixed church, distinguished Rudd from most other African American church editors. This unique locus points to intriguing comparisons that could analyze Rudd and his black Catholicism in a wider perspective, from his views and the content he published to the financial instability that plagued the American Catholic Tribune. These sorts of analyses will help fill the narrative gaps of Rudd’s life that will likely remain forever hidden.
We can be grateful that Agee’s biography has introduced Rudd to a wider audience. His voice, alongside the voices of other turn of the century black Catholics, reveals an important but often overlooked dimension of the complicated and contested relationship between religion and race in American history.