Rutgers University Ph.D. Candidate Explores the History of Black Nuns in Desegregating American Education

Shannen Williams, a graduate student at Rutgers University, is completing work on her dissertation entitled “Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America After World War I.” Williams’ research shows that black nuns played a major role in opening up Catholic higher education to African Americans.

For example, in the 1920s African Americans in New Orleans took off-campus classes at all-white Loyola University that were taught by the Sisters of Charity of Seton-Hill. In the early 1930s, the Obate Sisters of Providence worked with the archbishop of Baltimore to re-integrate the Catholic University of America, which had banned blacks during World War I. Williams’ research also examines the extensive network of black secondary schools operated by Catholic nuns that in many cases were the only quality education available to black youths.

Williams won a $25,000 Newcombe Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for the 2011-12 academic year. The fellowships are given to students writing Ph.D. dissertations on religious and ethical values.

A native of Memphis, Williams is a magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Agnes Scott College. She earned a master’s degree in Afro-American studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2006.

Williams told JBHE that several university presses had expressed interest in publishing her dissertation.