This week I re-read a small book by Gary Agee entitled “Daniel Rudd: Calling a Church to Justice” (Liturgical Press, 2017). I first read it right after it was published and since doing so, wanted to spread the word about this prominent Catholic born in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1854. The introduction begins by quoting the May 1890 edition of the Christian Soldier, an African American newspaper published in Lexington, Kentucky, which declared “Dan A. Rudd of the Catholic Tribune … the greatest Negro Catholic in America.”
When he was just three years old, the Supreme Court issued the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. This decision declared that Dred Scott, a slave, was not a citizen and could not sue in a federal court. Thank God, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the subsequent 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution nullified this terrible decision.
The Dred Scott era, however, was the atmosphere in which our hero, Daniel Rudd, grew up, and he spent most of his life until his death in 1933 opposing efforts to treat persons of color without respect and dignity. A self-made and educated individual, Rudd became known as a prominent editor of a newspaper in Cincinnati and a powerful force — perhaps the primary force — in beginning what is now the National Black Catholic Congress.
Tirelessly working for justice within and beyond the Catholic Church, he spoke out in January 1890 against offending business owners in Cincinnati. I was amazed by this quote — an early echo of the leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “This country is not properly civilized and will not be until men learn to treat each other on their merits and not the color of their skin, their eyes, or their hair.”
When he died in 1933, Daniel Rudd was buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery in Bardstown. I have been working recently with Father Bradshaw, the pastor of the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral, to install a suitable memorial and remembrance near his grave.
While this column might appropriately be published in November, which is African American Catholic history month, I thought it important to highlight this hero, an active layperson in the Catholic Church who worked tirelessly to call the church to justice.
I join all of us in mourning the tragic participation in the scourge of slavery and complicity in the ugly sin of racism by those in the Catholic Church — bishops, priests and the laity — who have gone before me. I will be working with the Office of Multicultural Ministry, the Priests’ Council and others in developing concrete steps as the year unfolds, with special emphasis on the 2018 pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops, “Open Wide Our Hearts.”
You and I will agree that we are desperately in need of heroes in our culture, and so I raise up the life, work and spirit of Daniel A. Rudd, born a slave, who lived consistently as a committed Catholic adult seeking ways to work for justice. I look forward to announcing a suitable memorial near his gravesite that will not only announce but also proclaim this Catholic hero for our day.