Daniel Rudd dedication full of joy, inspiration

Visionaries can seem simultaneously preposterous and inspirational when viewed over the distance of time.

Gary Agee reminded me of that when I watched the videotaped remarks he made last Sunday moments before an Ohio Historical marker honoring Daniel Rudd was dedicated in front of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Springfield.

To his largely Catholic audience, the Rudd biographer and Church of God pastor, mentioned John the Baptist.

A snippet from the online Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology reminds us of the distinctive character of the prophet Christians believe foretold the coming of Jesus: “John’s lifestyle was as austere as his message. He was an ascetic living in the wilderness, clothed in camel hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey.”

Daniel Rudd was hardly doing that in the 10 or so years during the 1870s and 1880s when he lived in Springfield and attended St. Raphael’s Church. Still, there was a “voice in the desert” quality in his vision for achieving equality for the 4 million slaves suddenly freed at the end of the Civil War.

Born a slave in 1854 in Bardstown, Ky, Rudd came of age and followed his brother to the manufacturing center of Springfield after the Civil War to make his way in a much changed world.

Establishing himself in town and completing a high school education, he became a journalist and activist advocating for the rights of freed slaves in the forthright style of Frederick Douglass. Among the issues high on his agenda was the integration of the city’s schools.

But over his years in Springfield, he concluded that the nation’s civil authorities were either unable or unwilling to transform American society into a place where Blacks would be treated as equals. So, in 1885, using his experience in journalism, Rudd founded the Ohio State Tribune, a newspaper that urged blacks to seek equality through an institution in which he had greater faith.

Rudd urged others to place their hope, as he did, in “the only place on this continent where rich and poor, white and black, must drop prejudice at the threshold and go hand in hand to the altar” – the Catholic Church.

Blacks were, of course, a minority among Catholics. Most were members of Protestant denominations. But Rudd, who had knelt at the altar with white children even as a slave, considered the vision of Black equality before God and people “Catholic to the core.”

Church historian Cyprian Davis marveled at Rudd’s envisioning Black Catholics as “the leaven” that would “raise their people up” from the deprivations of slavery in the way yeast causes bread to rise. Rudd’s words allude, of course, to the bread that represents the body of Christ in the sacrament of communion.

In a 2004 interview with the News-Sun, Davis said Rudd’s hope was that “there would soon be a massive conversion” of Blacks to the Catholic Church and “once that happened, the Catholic Church would take up the cause of Blacks and end the color line.”

“His vision is almost a messianic vision of African American Catholics,” Davis said. And, as unrealistic as it may seem, Davis found the romantic nature of Rudd’s quest “kind of wonderful,” all the more charming, perhaps, because of the audacity of Rudd’s hope.

But Rudd also took practical steps toward realizing his improbable vision. The first was the newspaper addressed to Black Catholics, one founded in Springfield, then moved to Cincinnati in 1886 and renamed the American Catholic Tribune. Two years later, he founded and became the first president of the Congress of Colored Catholics – a national gathering of Black believers.

Inside the church, which Rudd saw as a sanctuary of equality, the Congress offered a special room in which Blacks could feel welcome. At its first conference, held in Washington, D.C., Rudd and other delegates were invited to meet with President Grover Cleveland in the White House.

Although he received some support within the church for his efforts, demographics, politics and the realities of a still divided and white-dominated nation conspired against him. Despite his best efforts, Rudd’s newspaper, which in its best days had 10,000 subscribers, failed in 1897. His Congress met just four times, closing down in 1894.

At that point, having been disappointed by both his nation and church, Rudd headed South to work for black millionaire Scott Bond. While writing Bond’s biography and operating his lumber, he also showed a talent for inventing machinery to make the operation run more smoothly.

During that time, Agee writes, Rudd didn’t give up on the quest for equality, but rather “promulgated a ‘(Booker T.) Washington-like’ economic, self-help approach as the most promising method.”

That lasted until 1919, Agee adds, when “as violence in the South continued and the limitations of … (Booker) Washington’s program … became evident” and Rudd returned to Douglass-style direct action.

In 1932, he died in obscurity and likely poverty, after suffering a stroke.

But Rudd’s ideas didn’t die with him. Black Catholics, including Davis, introduced him to larger audiences over the years, perhaps without daring to hope he might be celebrated again as he was last Sunday. No one would likely have been more pleased by the event than St. Raphael’s fifth pastor, Edmund Hussey, who was Rudd’s pastor and who wrote him into the histories of both parish and archdiocese.

Photos taken at the dedication show excitement on the faces of many of the 100 in attendance – an excitement reflected in my colleague Brett Turner’s story on the event.

Among the joyful were Pamela Cross Young and her mother, Julie Cross, both Black Catholics who were born in Rudd’s hometown of Bardstown and proud of it.

Mrs. Cross and her other daughter, Rhonda, felt a further connection with Rudd because both have attended several conferences of the Nation Black Catholic Congress, the descendant of Rudd’s.

Dolores Banks, born into the long shuttered Black St. Martin’s Church of Springfield, said Rudd’s image and name were present at the five congresses she attended. And Betty Grimes, said she found a special pride among of 3,500 Black Catholics at another – the kind of pride and joy last Sunday.

“I was so proud (because) now the story can be told,” she said.

She was particularly joyful, she said, because “I never thought this would happen.”

In the dedication’s afterglow, St. Raphael deacon Norm Horstman declared Rudd’s spirit – “that leavening” – to be “still alive … still working … and still fermenting.”

Although Horstman, who is white, was clearly part of the effort that brought the marker to St. Raphael’s, he gives full credit to “our diversity committee,” which includes many of the people quoted in this story.

They, he said, continue to be the yeast that’s creating a better vision for and version of a church that once was Rudd’s; now is theirs; and, in every era, is called to rise again to the challenges of its times.

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