New look at black Catholics
When I tell people I'm working on a book on black Catholics in Charleston, the initial response is disbelief. "There are black Catholics?" they ask. Indeed, there are Catholics of African heritage in Charleston, and this community has been a significant part of the city's social and religious life for centuries. Some African immigrants were Catholic before they were enslaved. In the 18th century in Charleston, the majority of black Catholics were free. And French.
Thousands of refugees came to North America after the revolution in France in 1789 and to its wealthy island colony, Saint-Domingue, two years later. About 500 black and white emigres arrived in Charleston by early 1792. They brought what possessions they could carry along with servants and slaves. Most had witnessed the destruction of their homes, businesses and plantations in the Caribbean.
While some put down roots in American communities, many thought they would return to the island or to France and in time reclaim their lost property. This influx of French and French Creoles, free blacks and slave refugees formed the nucleus of the Catholic community in Charleston for the next 30 years. It is from this core of European and Caribbean Catholics that the black Catholics of Charleston developed.
At the time, Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti) was the wealthiest colony in the Western world. In the colony, many free people of color, of mixed European and African ancestry, were landowners and urban artisans.
Historians such as John Garrigus, Dominique Rogers and Stewart King estimate that 60 percent of the population of Le Cap, a major city in Saint-Domingue, comprised free people of color. They held offices in the colonial administration, especially the military. Free women of color owned property and businesses. While the wealthiest planters were white, the smaller plantation owners, often mixed race, also could be very wealthy. These families tended to align themselves with other property owners and thereby strengthen their ties in the larger community.
When free people of color immigrated to North America, they brought with them their family relationships, business and personal contacts and as much of their former society as possible. They tried to re-create their island world, but religion, language and legal restrictions set them apart in Charleston society. There were far fewer economic opportunities available in South Carolina than in Saint-Domingue, and whites' fears of revolution handicapped all immigrants of color.
Historian George Terry noted that white victims of the revolution were overwhelmed with an outpouring of sympathy, but black victims of the same revolution met a different welcome. There was widespread fear that blacks from war-torn Saint-Domingue were revolutionaries despite the fact that free blacks suffered as much as whites. Carolinians took immediate steps to prevent revolution in their state. In 1794, the South Carolina General Assembly forbade free blacks from entering the state. Free people of color caught entering South Carolina were to be deported. This act was repeated in 1800 and included the importation of slaves from other states.
It is important to see Charleston as it was in 1790. Charleston society comprised whites, free blacks and slaves.
In the 1790 census, there were 8,089 whites, 586 free blacks and 7,684 slaves. By the 1800 census, there were 9,630 whites, 1,024 free blacks and 9,819 slaves. While the white population rose 19 percent over the decade, the free black population rose 74 percent, due in no small part to the arrival of emigres of color. By the 1810 census, the free black population had risen 151 percent over the 1790s while the white population rose only 43 percent. In the same time frame, the total slave population rose 51.8 percent.
It is clear the laws intended to restrict the increase of free people of color were more honored in the breach. If South Carolina's laws had been effective in closing the doors to revolution, the population would have decreased immediately rather than increasing over time.
Since there was such a significant increase in the number of free blacks, these gens de couleur, to use the French term, must have radically changed the dynamic of the community. An influx of exotic, French-speaking, relatively wealthy, slave-owning and Catholic families into a Protestant and English-speaking free black community must have challenged the status quo.
A look at the records of St. Mary's Catholic Church provides an important insight to the French free black community.
In the only Catholic church in Charleston at the time, about 20 percent of all baptisms involved free people of color, and whites were baptismal sponsors in nearly all cases. The baptismal entries show a pattern of responsibility and influence between French free black Catholics and French white Catholics. Slaves were not a significant presence in the early years.
Free people of color also were married in the Catholic Church, and were buried at the church, although few were buried in St. Mary's Church cemetery. The files indicate a preference for other cemeteries, such as St. Philip's, the Methodist ground, or the "African cemetery," or the cemetery at Pitt and Boundary streets.
Did Saint-Dominguan free blacks import revolution as Carolinians feared? No. Did fears of slave revolution die out as a consequence? No again. Free black Catholics did import, however, a unique perspective on Catholic religion that reached across racial lines. This in itself was a significant achievement.
Suzanne Krebsbach is corporate librarian for Santee Cooper and a historian of black Catholicism.