The Catholic Church has discriminated against blacks in the past -- and the present, two black Catholic leaders charged during a Black History Month seminar last Sunday.
They said that despite nearly 100 years of organized protest by blacks, the U.S. Catholic church has not completely opened its doors to them.
"Blacks are not in key church agencies," said Jackie Wilson, director of the Secretariat for Black Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington. "As a result, they cannot influence decisions that affect them."
During a seminar sponsored by Sts. Paul & Augustine Church, Wilson, who represents 70,000 black Catholics in the Washington area, said blacks must press for more representation in the church.
Cyprian Rowe, executive director of the National Office of Black Catholics, said that black Catholics must ask the church to "practice the universal principles it teaches." He added that "blacks have heard the promise, but have never seen it delivered."
Rowe said that black Catholics first met in 1889 to fight discriminating practices in the church.
A large group of blacks gathered in Cincinnati, he said, "to have situations removed where blacks had to sit in the rear of the church or in balconies during services."
Rowe said they also asked that seminaries be opened to blacks. There was only one foreign-trained black priest in America during the 1880s because blacks were not admitted in to U.S. seminaries.
"These recommendations, of course, went unheeded," said Rowe, who holds a doctorate in African studies from Howard University.
Over the years, however, Rowe said the Catholic church has slowly begun changing its attitudes toward blacks.
"It was very significant," Rowe said, that the first black bishop in this country was appointed in the late 1960s when several black Catholic organizations began.Even more significant, he added, is that there have been four black bishops appointed since then.
The new racial attitude in the church is affecting other minorities as well, he said. "Four or five years ago it would have been impossible for there to be a Hispanic bishop appointed to such an important archdiocese as San Antonio, but it has happened now."
Part of the change in attitude, Rowe said, is because of intense pressure supplied by organizations like his own, which he said represents more than one million blacks across the country.
One problem black organizations have had, according to Rowe and Wilson, is that they have been misunderstood.
"We have not been part of a black separatist movement and we are not trying to take blacks away from the teachings of the Catholic Church," Wilson said.
Wilson was elected head of the secretariat for the Washington Archdiocese in 1979 by local black parishioners. Her job was created six years ago by Cardinal William W. Baum to increase black participation in the church.
While Wilson said the church attitudes toward blacks are improving, she added: "It has been an uphill battle and we are still fighting to get more representation."
The church will sponsor another Black History seminar at 2 p.m. this Sunday at the Msgr. George Gingras Ecumenical Center, 1419 V. St. NW. The seminar, called "The Roots of St. Augstine," will provide a history of the oldest black Catholic church in Washington.