Daniel Rudd was born on August 7, 1854 and was one of twelve children. His dad was a slave on the Rudd estate close to Bardstown, Kentucky and his mom was a slave on the Hayden plantation in Bardstown. Since the Rudd’s and Hayden’s were Catholic, so were Daniel’s parents. It followed that Daniel was baptized into the Catholic faith at St. Joseph’s Church. The fifteen year old daughter of his owner stood up for him as his God-mother.
Daniel’s relatives had been church sextons at St. Joseph’s for three generations and Daniel was taught how to care for the church. He was quoted as saying he never experienced any segregation in his church. “We have been all over St. Joseph Church from foundation stone to pinnacle and no one ever told us to move.” Daniel Rudd grew up loving his Catholicism.
During the pre-civil war era of slavery, slaves were not allowed to attend school. It is thought that Daniel’s priest at St. Joseph’s is the one who tutored him. After the Civil War, Daniel moved to Ohio with his brother, Charles. He actually managed to finish high-school (at the time a rare achievement for a young, white man, no less a black man) and, upon graduating, became a political activist in the fledgling and dangerous civil rights movement. This is also when he landed his first job at a newspaper. The year was 1880.
Daniel Rudd, filled with an entrepreneurial spirit, opened the first newspaper by and for African- Americans in January of 1885. It was called the “Ohio State Tribune”. One year later the name was changed to the “American Catholic Tribune”. The opening statement emblazoned across the front page was;
“We will do what no other paper published by colored men has dared to do—give the great Catholic Church a hearing and show that it is worthy of at least a fair consideration at the hands of our race, being as it is the only place on this Continent where rich and poor, white and black, must drop prejudice at the threshold and go hand in hand to the altar.”
This was an incredibly courageous way to launch his paper. At the time Catholics were, for the most part, looked down upon. Most African-Americans were Protestant and knew nothing about the Catholic Church. Yet Daniel Rudd, who was an “outsider” to his own people, was reaching out to them and asking them to consider converting. He let them know the Catholic Church was the “real answer” because it welcomed everyone. Somehow Daniel stood firm in the face of danger. His faith was his fortress because even the Ku Klux Klan, who were continually persecuting blacks, hated the Catholics too.
Daniel Rudd managed to stay safe and went on to become a noted journalist, speaker and advocate for Black Catholicism. In 1889, he and Father Augustus Tolton (a former slave and the first ordained African-American priest in America) began the National Black Catholic Congress in Washington D.C. By then his newspaper had a circulation of 10,000 readers. Mr. Rudd also was a leader of the Afro-American Press Association, was a founding member of the Catholic Press Association and helped found the Black Lay Catholic Movement.
Daniel Rudd, born a slave, became one of the most influential African-American Catholics in American history. In 1912 he moved to Arkansas where he taught in local schools and co-authored the biography of the first black millionaire in Arkansas, Scott Bond. Daniel Rudd’s Catholic faith was his anchor in the storm, the foundation for his courage and his comfort in the darkness he experienced. He passed to his eternal reward in 1932.
His message to his African-American brothers and sisters was:
“The Negro of this country; abused, downtrodden, and condemned, needs all the forces which may be brought to bear in his behalf to elevate him to that plane of equality. The HOLY ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH offers to the oppressed Negro a material as well as a spiritual refuge. We NEED the Church, the church WANTS us. Investigate brethren!”
April 1, 1854, Brush Creek, Missouri: Peter Tolton, paced nearby as his wife, Martha Jane, gave birth to their second son. They named him Augustus (after his uncle) and, before the month was out, the baby was baptized in nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Savilla Elliot stood as Augustus’ godmother.
The baptism of Augustus was a bit unusual. That was because Mrs. Elliot was married to Stephen Elliot, who happened to be the “owner” of Augustus’ mom and dad. Mr. and Mrs. Tolton were slaves and their three children, Charley, Augustus, and Anne, were born into slavery. The slave master made sure his slaves were baptized and his family and his slaves were all Catholic.
After the Civil War began, the Toltons, seeking freedom, ‘ran away’. Peter joined the Union army and the rest of the family headed north. With the help of Union soldiers, Martha Jane and her children arrived in Illinois, a “free” state. Martha Jane and the children settled in Quincy, Illinois. Young Augustus Tolton, aged eight or nine, was soon to meet Father Peter McGirr.
Martha Jane and her oldest boy, Charley, were hired by a local tobacco company to make cigars while Augustus, charged with taking care of his little sister, began spending a lot of time across the street from St. Peter’s Church. The pastor was Father McGirr.
Father McGirr, had noticed Augustus and his sister and, after a while, approached the boy. He introduced himself and asked a frightened Augustus if he would like to go to school. Augustus was thrilled with the prospect and said, “YES!”
Most of the white parishioners did not want a black student being taught along with their white children. Father McGirr held fast and firm and insisted the boy study at St. Peter’s. Martha Jane was shocked that her boy had been offered such an opportunity and agreed for him to go. Augustus Tolton’s life journey had been set before him even though he did not know it.
Father McGirr may have been moved by the Holy Spirit because he saw something in Augustus that others did not. The boy received his First Holy Communion, became an altar boy and proved to be a brilliant student. By the 1870s, when prejudice was basically taken for granted, Father McGirr was attempting to enroll Augustus in a seminary so he might study for the priesthood. The young black man was rejected by every American seminary to which he applied. But a tenacious and determined Father McGirr never gave up.
They both continued praying and trying and finally, Father McGirr secured admission for Augustus to St. Francis Solanus College located right there in Quincy. Upon graduation, Augustus was accepted into the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. In 1886, at the age of 32, Augustus Tolton was ordained to the priesthood in Rome. He was the first black Roman Catholic priest in the United States
Newspapers from across the country told the story of the former slave now ordained as a Catholic priest. When Father Tolton arrived back in Quincy he was greeted as a hero. A brass band played and Negro spirituals were sung as thousands of people, both white and black, sang together, lined the streets together and held hands together as they waited to catch a glimpse of the former slave boy who had been ordained a Catholic priest.
Father Tolton walked down the avenue dressed in his cassock and wearing the biretta. When he arrived at St. Boniface Church, hundreds were crowded inside wanting to receive his blessing. His very first blessing went to Father McGirr who was still by his side. The next day Father Tolton said his first Mass at the church which was once again packed inside while thousands of others stood outside. For these few days prejudices in Quincy, Illinois, were non-existent. The Golden Rule—Ruled.
Father Tolton had been ill for quite some time and had never told anyone. On a steaming July day in 1897, with the temperature at 105 degrees, Father Tolton was returning from a retreat in Bourbonnais, Ill. When he stepped from the train he collapsed. Taken to the hospital, he died a few hours later from sunstroke. He was only 43 years old. His community was shocked. They had lost a dear friend. “Good Father Gus”, as he was lovingly called by his parishioners, was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Quincy.
If 130 years ago white people and black people could join hands in song to honor a black Catholic priest, why could something like this not happen again? Maybe instead of a Ferguson, Missouri we could have a replay of a Quincy, Illinois, circa 1889. With God, anything is possible. We should pray to Good Father Gus for this. Who knows, maybe a new Augustus Tolton will one day step from the shadows to help us once again achieve such a moment.