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Historian of Black Catholic nuns joins University of Dayton faculty

By Meagan Pant

Her work is praised as “timely and essential,” “groundbreaking and illuminating,” even “stirring.” In her upcoming book, Shannen Dee Williams, new associate professor of history at the University of Dayton, provides the first full history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States.

“Before I began my research, the only Black nun I knew was Sister Mary Clarence — the fictional character played by Whoopi Goldberg in the Sister Act franchise,” said Williams, whose Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle is due out in May from Duke University Press.

“Over the course of 13 years though, I uncovered the history of America’s real sister act: the story of how generations of African American women and girls fought against racial discrimination and exclusion to become and minister as consecrated women of God in the Roman Catholic Church,” she said. “It is a history that has been largely suppressed and in far too many cases deliberately erased. My book demonstrates that the history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States unequivocally matters, and has always mattered.”

Williams, who came to the University of Dayton from Villanova University, is bringing her expertise to UD, developing curriculum on African American history and the Black Catholic experience.

“She brings with her a fantastic research agenda,” said ​​Christopher Agnew, Department of History chair. “The students she teaches and mentors will benefit greatly from her experience illuminating a long-ignored history of Black sisters, and her impact will extend well beyond the campus and contribute to our national conversations on race and racial justice. Our faculty are tremendously excited to welcome Dr. Williams to the department.”

Her new book is called “informative and often surprising” in a Publishers Weekly starred review, and praised by her fellow authors of Black and religious history.

Williams, a newly elected member of the executive council of the American Catholic Historical Association, holds a doctorate in history from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in Afro-American studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a bachelor’s in history from Agnes Scott College. 

Her research has been supported by a host of fellowships, grants and awards, including a scholar-in-residence fellowship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City; a Charlotte W. Newcombe doctoral fellowship in religion and ethics from the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation; an Albert J. Beveridge Grant from the American Historical Association; and the John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award from the American Catholic Historical Association.

For more information, visit the Department of History website.

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