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What's the Blackest Catholic university in America?

For Catholic Schools Week, Nate Tinner-Williams analyzes the Black demographics of the nation's Catholic institutions of higher education.

Students at Xavier University of Louisiana in 2020. (XULA)

Sunday marked the beginning of Catholic Schools Week, an annual celebration in the United States running this year through February 4. Founded by the National Catholic Educational Association in 1974, the week’s theme for its 49th year is “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellence. Service.” Schools around the country will celebrate the commemoration with Masses, open houses, and other special events.

For some years now, I have been fascinated with one aspect of Catholic education in particular, specifically concerning colleges and universities—which seem to be somewhat less highlighted during Catholic Schools Week in comparison to parochial and other schools. I wondered this: Where is the best place to find a vibrant Black community on a Catholic campus?

In other words, what are the Blackest Catholic colleges in America?

To answer the question, I first made use of a handy list from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which compiles every Catholic institution of higher education in the United States—though apparently excluding Puerto Rico and other US territories. I then cross-checked it with demographic data from the US Department of Education, dated to Fall 2021.

Though the federal government does not make it particularly easy to identify schools with a large Black population, they do provide the HBCU designation to certain schools that meet a certain historical criteria—but even that doesn’t guarantee that a school is actually majority-Black. Further, only one university possessing that designation is Catholic, hence the need for a relatively in-depth dig to answer my burning question.

And answer it I did, after no shortage of digital wrangling. So, if you happen to live within the 50 states, here are your best bets, listed in order of Black student percentage:

#1: Xavier University of Louisiana

No surprises here. Xavier University of Louisiana, located in New Orleans, is the nation’s first Black Catholic university, founded in 1925 and recognized since 1965 as an HBCU, a federal designation noting a school’s founding purpose to educate African Americans. XULA was founded by Philadelphia heiress and nun St. Katharine Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament—with a helping hand from the Josephites.

Notable alumni are too many to count, but include former school president Dr. Norman Francis, multiple New Orleans mayors, US Rep. Troy Carter, NBA pioneer Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and the first Black US Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman.

#2: Trinity Washington University

Located in the nation’s capital, just across the street from the US bishops’ own Catholic University of America—one of the Whitest Catholic postsecondary schools in the country—Trinity Washington University was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1897 as America’s first Catholic liberal arts college for women. It was originally known for educating the area’s middle and upper classes, boasting of alums such as Nancy Pelosi.

The end of sex segregation in most colleges in the late 20th century prompted the school’s shift to a diverse working-class student population in and around DC, one of the nation’s Blackest cities. Trinity has since gone co-ed, but is still over 90% female and with XULA is one of two majority-Black Catholic colleges in the US. As such, it is federally designated as a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI).

#3: Villa Maria College

One of two Buffalo schools in the top 25, Villa Maria College was founded by the Felician Sisters in 1960 as an affiliate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. It was intended to educate Felicians before their entry into the teaching profession in Catholic schools.

Within a decade—and in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement—the school began accepting lay men and women, and later became a four-year college in 2005. These days, more than a third of the student population is Black.

#4: Donnelly College

Located in Kansas City, Kansas, Donnelly College was co-founded in 1949 by Bishop George J. Donnelly and the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica—who also helped found nearby Benedictine College in Atchison. Formerly a junior college, Donnelly began offering a small number of four-year degree programs in 2006.

Donnelly is regarded by various groups as one of the more theologically orthodox Catholic schools in America, and is the only Kansas college or university designated as a minority-serving institution (MSI).

#5: Barry University

Miami is best known for its Latino culture, but it is also home to a robust Black community that is apparently thriving in a number of Catholic universities. Barry University, rounding out the top 5 of today’s list, boasts of a Black student population of 29% and was founded in 1940 by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The principal organizers were Mother Mary Gerald Barry, OP and her brother, Bishop Patrick J. Barry of St. Augustine.

Another St. Augustine prelate, the recently retired Bishop Felipe Estévez, is among Barry’s colorful list of notable alumni—including Shaquille O’Neal, who began his doctorate at the school near the end of his NBA career, Grammy-nominated rapper Flo Rida, and former Haitian prime minister Laurent Lamothe.

The upshot

For the entirety of the top 10 in my list, the student population is at least a quarter Black. The top 25 are at least 20% Black, and span a wide swath of the nation, including the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Upper South, Deep South, and Midwest.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the West Coast is almost entirely absent in the top 100, with Loyola Marymount University coming in at #93 with a Black student representation of just 7%, closely followed by a fellow Jesuit school in the University of San Francisco (#95), and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles (#98). Holy Names University in Oakland, which is 18% Black, is scheduled to close at the end of this semester.

Among Catholic colleges and universities with a Black student population of at least 20%, the best-represented state is Pennsylvania, with four schools: #9 Chesnut Hill College, #11 Neumann University, #16 Rosemont College, and #22 Cabrini University—all of which are located in the Philadelphia metro.

In that bracket, Florida (Barry, #12 Saint Leo University, and #17 St. Thomas University) and Ohio (#10 Notre Dame College, #15 Ursuline College, and #23 Ohio Dominican University) come in at three apiece. New Orleans, which could be said to be the Blackest Catholic major city in the US, joins Buffalo (Villa Maria and #24 Trocaire College) with two institutions therein: XULA and #8 University of Holy Cross.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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