Harold Perry (1916-1991) was the first African American bishop in the Roman Catholic church's modern age.
Harold Perry's elevation to the position of bishop in 1966 was a signal that the hierarchy inside the Vatican—essentially the spiritual and authoritarian fathers of the world's millions of Catholics—were sympathetic to the civil rights struggles of African Americans both inside and outside of the faith. Perry's achievement was also a timely marker of Catholicism's efforts at liberalizing some facets of the church.
Perry was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1916, the oldest of six children. His father was a rice mill worker, and the Perry children grew up Catholic and French-speaking in the bilingual Creole region. They also learned tolerance of others at the knees of their parents, as Perry recalled in an interview with Ebony's Era Bell Thompson. "They taught us not to resent white people. … 'Be sure, ' they would caution, 'that there is no prejudice on your part."' Perry knew from an early age that he wished to enter the priesthood, and entered a Society of Divine Word Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, at age 13. The Divine Word flock had been founded in 1875 in Holland and trained Catholic priests in several countries. Two of Perry's brothers followed him into the seminary, but later went on to medical school instead.
Perry was ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1944, and joined only 25 other African American men to have done so in the country at the time. Over the next few years he served as a parish priest in religious communities across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. In 1952 his superiors assigned him to found a parish in Broussard, Louisiana, where a large number of African-American Catholics lived. During this era, the city and surrounding areas that made up the Archdiocese of New Orleans were home to the largest contingent of Roman Catholics in the United States, but out of nearly 45 million Catholics nationwide, only 700, 000 were of African American descent. At the time, a contingent of New Orleans' white Catholics were gaining notoriety for their reluctance to integrate. When an African American priest was assigned to one Louisiana church in 1955, some of its members refused to attend services. Segregation of New Orleans' parochial schools was another issue: when the Archbishop forced them to integrate in 1962, an opposition movement grew until three well-known and especially vehement white protesters were excommunicated.
After setting up the parish in Broussard, Perry was appointed rector at his alma mater, the Bay St. Louis seminary. It was there he became more active in the civil rights movement, although he refused to participate in the more confrontational methods of protest. He joined the board of the National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice when it was founded in 1960, and President John F. Kennedy invited him to a special White House conference on civil rights issues in 1963 along with 250 prominent religious leaders. That same year, Perry also became the first African American cleric to deliver the opening convocation of the U.S. Congress. Such work on behalf of improved relations between blacks and whites in America came to the attention of Pope Paul VI. The pope was particularly interested in making a show of support toward improved racial relations after the Watts riots in Los Angeles during the summer of 1965.
In September of 1965, Perry journeyed to Rome for the consecration (the rite that takes place when a priest becomes a bishop) of another black priest, Carlos Lewis of Panama. Upon his arrival, he was informed that the Vatican's appointment bureau wished to meet with him, and there he learned that the pope was about to name him auxiliary bishop to the Archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan. Shortly thereafter, Perry met with the pope for the first time on what was also the priest's 49th birthday. His appointment was announced to the press with much fanfare, and civic and religious leaders of all races and faiths sent their congratulations, including President Lyndon Johnson. The president of the New Orleans Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance told America magazine that Perry's elevation to bishop "places the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 21st century, " evidence that "the ground before Christ's cross is level and that all are equally redeemed."
Despite the accolades, however, Perry's consecration as bishop and his return home to the deep south was tarnished by some detractors. A few white Catholics in New Orleans protested outside his official reception, and one of those excommunicated earlier for objecting to the parochial schools' integration told Time magazine that Perry's elevation to auxiliary bishop was "another reason why God will destroy the Vatican." Perry recognized the significance of his achievement in an era when African Americans were finding their voices in an attempt to rectify a long history of institutional mistreatment and social prejudice, but declared to Ebony's Thompson, "My appointment is a religious one, not a civil rights appointment. My religious work comes first. … I feel that the greatest contribution I can make to raise the dignity of my people, is being a good religious bishop and fulfilling my office to the utmost of my ability."
Within a few years, however, Perry was using his position to speak out on behalf of civil rights issues a bit more assertively. In the fall of 1968, he told an interviewer in New Zealand that African Americans "have made all the gains we can from a liberal approach; the methods used in the future must be radical." Perry also stated that until the United States began spending more federal funds to combat racism, "we can see little hope for any appreciable change in the near future." Perry remained auxiliary bishop of New Orleans until his death in 1991.
America, October 16, 1965, p. 425; November 16, 1968, p. 461.
"New Orleans Priest is First U.S. Negro to Be Named Catholic Bishop in 90 Years, " in Ebony, February 1966, p. 62.
Jet, August 5, 1991, p. 9-10; July 18, 1994, p. 27.
"Historic Bishops, " in Time, October 8, 1965, p. 70. □