An Interview with Suzanne Krebsbach

[This month's post is an interview with Suzanne Krebsbach, an independent scholar who traveled to the Notre Dame archives on a Cushwa Research Travel Grant last year. A note: this interview was scheduled to run just a couple of days after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Since Suzanne's research is on Charleston -- and on race in Charleston, no less -- we decided to hold the interview back for a few months, out of respect. However, we also decided not to edit what had already been prepared in order to reflect more directly on recent events. This is another small piece of the broader context of race and religion in Charleston.]

Cushwa: What's your book about? Where did you find archival sources?

My work is  on black Catholics in Charleston SC.  This book is a longitudinal study of a community, held together in part by a common religious and ethnic history. French-speaking black Catholics arrived in Charleston in the 1790s as the Revolution in France echoed across French Caribbean, especially Saint-Domingue, later known as Haiti.  Emigres were black, mulatto,and white, free and enslaved, Francophone and Catholic; and their impact on the Protestant and English speaking community was profound.  Early records of the Charleston diocese, where they exist, dealt with John England, the charismatic first bishop who arrived in 1820.  He was followed by Ignatius Reynolds and the controversial Patrick N. Lynch who died in 1882. In the Notre Dame archives I looked at the bishops' correspondence with Propaganda de le Foi, the French charitable society founded in 1822 which regularly contributed funds to the impoverished South Carolina diocese.  In every annual report, the bishops painted glowing reports of missionary efforts to blacks, the numbers barely budging from year to year, however.

Diocesan archival sources pick up after the Civil War.  These complement the bishops' annual reports to the Negro and Indian Commission which are complete to the late 20th century.  Josephite Fathers and other religious orders assisted in missionary work, so letters and newspaper accounts are abundant after 1870s .  At one point in the 1930s and 1940s the Oblate Sisters of Providence managed Immaculate Conception, a black Catholic high school.  I break up the chronology with a few topical discussions, such as an analysis of the remarkable Charlestonian and black Catholic leader James A. Spencer, an obscure Reconstruction politician who rose of national prominence in the Colored Catholic Congress movement on the 1890s.  I also compare and contrast black Catholic St. Peter's Church with the black Episcopal St. Mark's Church which was also formed post-Civil War, but from a different social class.

Cushwa: How did you first get interested in this topic? What was starting the research like, years ago when you first began?

This topic found me, so to speak.  My husband and I moved back to Charleston about 20 years ago when he was Executive Director of the SC Historical Society.  Our friend Mary Giles, the Diocesan archivist at the time, knew I wanted to keep up my historical skills, but as a Europeanist, there was little I could think to do in a city with no research library.  The College of Charleston has since built a fine academic library and the Special Collections have merged with the SC Historical Society.   The South Carolina Room of the Charleston County Public Library has absorbed some of the County archives.  About 2001 Mary offered me a project writing a pamphlet for a Black Catholic photo exhibit.  I hesitated because I was not familiar with Southern sources.  I am, however, familiar with Church history, so I agreed.  It was immediately apparent there was more material than I needed for a brief pamphlet  - which turned out to be about 10 pages longer than we needed.  

After I completed the pamphlet assignment I began reading widely in the secondary literature while exploring primary sources.  As I gradually mastered the sources I published an article on black Catholics in antebellum Charleston, partly to let the scholarly community know what I was working on.  My husband, who is a well-known historian in his own right, convinced me I had enough material for at least a book, so I began thinking in broader terms.  Research was slow and difficult for several reasons.  I worked full time as an engineering librarian for a public power company.  The two hour daily commute left little free time.  Nearly all material was through interlibrary loan with the Charleston County Public Library.  To give you an example of the difficulties: I needed to read all of the published annual reports and correspondence from the Bishops of Charleston to the Negro and Indian Fund.  these are on on microfilm.  I did not have the free time to visit the libraries which held the film, so it literally took years to get all the film on loan and print out the reports from 1889 to 1974. I have since retired, so my writing days are much more productive.

Cushwa: What's your favorite piece of trivia or archival source you've found while pursuing this research?

My favorite piece of trivia has to be the mysterious Fr. George Paddington, a black priest ordained by Bishop John England in Haiti in the 1830s.  He is alleged to have been from a family of Irish acrobats.  After ordination Fr. Paddington  moved on to Rome where he disappeared from the records. Paddington may or may not have been the first black priest ordained in North American/by an American bishop/in modern times, take your pick of qualifiers.

Cushwa: Why do you think there was so little success at "convert-making" despite the glowing reports etc?

The Bishops of Charleston wrote uniformly glowing reports of conversion prospects to their main funding agencies, the Propaganda de la Foi and later the American bishops' Negro and Indian Fund. Funding from outside sources was critical to the survival of the diocese  because there were too few Catholics to support even basic administrative needs. The diocese of Charleston always seemed to teeter on the financial brink. When Ignatius Reynolds, second Bishop of Charleston, arrived to take over from John England, he found the episcopal residence had just been sold for back taxes, and England had neglected to apply for a grant from Propaganda de la Foi. These sources were sympathetic to missionary efforts so they kept money flowing, even if results were sparse. In reality there were few converts because there were so few priests. European priests were vulnerable to local diseases such as yellow fever and malaria as well as overwork. The small Catholic population eventually contributed local priests, but never enough to mount thorough missions to the plantations.  It is interesting to note that Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries had similar personnel and funding issues; and Catholics were competing with these missionaries in rural missions, if not in the city of Charleston.

Cushwa: Can you contrast the two parishes you look at (Catholic and Episcopalian) -- what are the things they have in common, and what don't they have in common?

At a point in the Reconstruction narrative (1865-1876) I compare and contrast two black parishes, St. Mark's Episcopal and St. Peter's Catholic.  Wealthy free light-skinned blacks formed St. Mark's in 1865 and applied for membership in the South Carolina Episcopal convention about ten years later.  The Convention, composed of white Episcopalians, excluded this black parish from full membership until the 1970s. (Yes, Episcopalians can vote on these kinds of issues). Patrick Lynch, third bishop of Charleston, formed St. Peter's parish in 1867. Members of this congregation were socially lower than St. Mark's. They were darker-skinned artisans, free men and freedmen. However, they were fully Catholic in an inclusive church. Both congregations faced racial prejudice of the time, but St. Mark's congregation faced also exclusion from their own denomination.

Cushwa: What's it been like making the transition to full-time scholarship?

I have been working on this topic for years, slowed to a necessary crawl by my full-time job as an engineering librarian for a public power company. The commute alone took 2 hours a day. Now that I'm retired, I'm amazed I was able to get any  historical work done at all. I structure my days as though writing were my job: I do necessary management tasks (appointments, shopping, etc.) in the morning and at 2 pm every day I write until 8 pm. "Writing" can also consist of background research or reading microfilm. I've been able to fill in some important contextual gaps in my understanding of antebellum slave missions as well as the origins and use of political power among blacks in Reconstruction South Carolina.  Context, as they say, is everything.

Cushwa: How do you deal with microfilm that many hours a day?!

MICROFILM!  It wouldn't be so bad if the screens were better, the chairs more comfortable, and the printers always made good, free copies!

Thanks for asking for this peek at my work.  I love my "new" job!


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