PROVIDENCE — Although an unexpected snowstorm may have delayed the event by over a month, the Diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry enjoyed a remarkable turnout at their recent celebration of Black History Month, hosted by St. Patrick Church in Providence. The originally scheduled date for the event had been February 12, but inclement weather forced organizers to instead set their sights on the evening of Sunday, March 24. Although this may have made it the latest celebration of Black History Month this year, it was nevertheless one which succeeded in its goal of “honoring the journey” which brought African-Americans up from the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, leading many to settle here in Rhode Island.
The theme for this year’s event was “Black Migrations,” and it accordingly focused primarily on the period from 1916 to 1970 known as the Great Migration. This period saw a mass exodus of black populations from the American South moving North and West; with Jim Crow Laws becoming officially codified in nearly every Southern state over the course of the late 19th Century, these families found little social incentive to remain below the Mason-Dixon Line. When the outbreak of World War One resulted in a labor shortage in the factories of the Northeast and Midwest, many African-Americans therefore found themselves relocating in the hope of finding both better work and more welcoming communities.
The community at St. Patrick’s was certainly a welcoming one, with people coming from parishes across the city and across the state in order to attend the celebration. Kevin Jimenez is a member of St. Pius V Parish in Providence, and originally heard about the February event from a friend. “When it was rescheduled, I was super disappointed because I wasn’t sure if it the new date would happen to be on one of my days off,” he explained. “But it actually ended up lining up really conveniently, so here I am!”
The program for the evening included prayer, song, and reflections read by members of both St. Patrick Church and also the Tabernacle of Faith and Deliverance Church in Cranston. Father James Ruggieri, the Pastor of St. Patrick’s, opened the event with a prayer centered around Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave or free, nor man or woman, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In his prayer, Father Ruggieri called on everyone to come together and “celebrate the diversity of our faith community.”
Patty January, the Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, served as the MC of the celebration, at one point even leading the assembly to “join together, dance a little dance, and sing a little song.” As the crowd sang the refrain to the Civil Rights Era anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” January guided them through a simple dance which pantomimed the song’s call to “keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, marchin’ into Freedom-Land.”
Another major feature of the evening was poetry readings, in which local children (many of them students of St. Patrick’s Academy) read selections from prominent African-America poets. St. Patrick’s student Jireh Falaye earned raucous applause for his performance of Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Falaye, who was not scheduled to perform the poem back in February, was asked to fill in when the original reader was unable to attend the rescheduled date.
Despite the unexpected complications in planning the event, the Black History Celebration certainly accomplished its goals of fostering unity and understanding while reflecting on the history of our diocese’s vibrant African-American community. The words of Pastor Patricia Smith (of the Tabernacle of Faith and Deliverance) that “there must be a coming together of my people” certainly seemed to resonate with everyone in attendance, and will hopefully inspire a sense of fraternity among the beautifully diverse family we share in Christ.