In 1924, Jim Crow laws were still enforced in many parts of the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet born, and the height of the civil rights movement wouldn’t be for another 40 years. Nonetheless, it was at this time that the Knights of Columbus commissioned and published The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America by famous civil rights proponent W.E.B. DuBois.
The Gift of Black Folk presents the varied contributions of Black Americans from the earliest colonial settlements through World War I and the early 1920s. A valuable resource to all who are interested in black history, the book is filled with touching stories and anecdotes.
When The Gift of Black Folk was first published in 1924, many in the United States had not yet embraced the notion that people of every race helped establish and strengthen their nation. The ideal “that all men are created equal” was more a philosophical statement than a practical reality for millions — especially those of African descent.
The book was groundbreaking and was seen as an important contribution to black history and racial tolerance. The Oakland Tribune’ s review of the book, published Aug. 31, 1924, stated: “The book is one of the most valuable contributions to American literature published in a decade, the result of which should create a better understanding among the races. It proves that Negroes (sic) have the right to be considered and treated as American citizens.”
This last sentence seems obvious today, but the American social climate was very different in 1924. At the time, Alfred E. Smith, a Catholic and a Knight, met with staunch opposition when he ran for president in the Democratic primary. After Smith became the Democratic nominee four years later, he was greeted by the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan — who targeted Catholics, in addition to blacks, Jews and other minorities — when his train entered Oklahoma City.
Against the backdrop of widespread bigotry, the 1921 Supreme Convention had previously adopted a resolution, initially put forward by Fourth Degree Member John Reddin, to establish the Knights of Columbus Historical Commission. The purpose of the commission was to combat the revisionist history of the time, which tended to exclude minority groups from the record of historical achievement. The project was overseen by Edward McSweeney, who served as Assistant U.S. Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island from 1893-1902.
In addition to The Gift of Black Folk, other books were published as part of the Knights’ racial contribution series. Since anti-Semitism was prevalent in the United States in the early 20th century, and since German-Americans found themselves distrusted following World War I, the Order also published The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Schrader. Even prior to the book series, though, the Knights had long been active in developing race relations.
The History of Knights of Columbus, published in 1897 by William O’Neill, recounted the creation of Philip Sheridan Council 119 of Southboro, Mass. Before joining the Knights and forming a council, the men of Southboro had belonged to the John Boyle O’Reilly literary society, which had elected a black man as its president. O’Neill noted this and wrote that the men of Southboro were “in this act reflecting the principles of the Catholic church, which recognizes all colors and races as the children of God.”
Two decades later, during World War I, the Knights pioneered the “Army Hut” program, a forerunner of the United Service Organizations (USO). Knights provided for the care and comfort of the troops on military bases in the United States and France, regardless of race, creed, or religion.
The book The American Negro in the Great War, published in 1919, had special praise for the manner in which the Knights dealt with racial issues. Its author, Emmet J. Scott, was an African-American who served as special adjutant to the U.S. Secretary of War. He wrote of the Knights: “Another organization was of much service in making Negro soldiers comfortable at the front. This was the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic society, which has to its credit that, unlike the other social welfare organizations operating in the war, it never drew the color line.”
After World War I, the Order continued to assist the troops by organizing job vocational classes for returning veterans, regardless of their race. And when the Knights commissioned and published The Gift of Black Folk five years later, the Order’s work for racial equality was far from over.
Stories abound of individual councils and members, such as Father William Ryan, working in the black community. Father Ryan, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, not only ministered to black Americans in the South, but also marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
John W. McDevitt, who served as the Order’s 11th Supreme Knight from 1964-1977, also did much to advance the cause of racial equality. When it became apparent that some local councils were hesitant to include black members, McDevitt amended the Order’s bylaws to prevent any local council from restricting African Americans from membership.
In 1964, McDevitt was informed that the Supreme Convention’s host hotel in New Orleans did not allow African Americans. He immediately threatened to move the event to another venue if the convention hotel did not integrate. The hotel did so, and McDevitt seated a black priest on the dais at the States Dinner as a sign of his — and the Knights’ — commitment to racial equality.
As the civil rights movement advanced, Knights took justifiable pride in the Order’s groundbreaking work in the area of racial tolerance. Speaking in 1970 — just six years after the Civil Rights Act was passed in the United States — Archbishop Paul F. Leibold of Cincinnati told St. Martin de Porres Council 5624 that the national organization of the Knights of Columbus “never subscribed to the evil of racism.” Citing The Gift of Black Folk, the archbishop pointed out that the book had been published “decades before it was so popular to jump on the [civil rights] bandwagon.”
The Order’s commitment to racial equality continues today, and African Americans and other minorities hold leadership positions throughout the organization.