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Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D.August 1, 2019

Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History, Vilanova University in Philadelphia
Topic: The Real Sister Act: Black Catholic Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate U.S. Religious Life


Shannen Dee Williams, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of history at the Villanova University in Philadelphia PS. Dr. Shannen Dee Williams is a historian of the United States with research specializations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African-American history, black women’s history, civil rights history, African-American religious history, the black Catholic experience, and feminist and womanist thought. She teaches courses in U.S., African-American, women’s, religious, and civil rights history at the University of Tennessee.  Her study draws upon a wide array of sources, including previously sealed church records and over 100 oral history interviews, to unearth the largely hidden history of African-American women religious—the canonical term for Catholic nuns and sisters.  As the first representatives of the African-American community to enter religious life and the progenitors of black Catholic education in the United States, African-American sisters left an un-paralleled record of black resistance to white supremacy in the modern church. Yet, their stories remain uniquely invisible in the annals of history. The longstanding practices of racial segregation and exclusion in female religious life, which kept the national black sister population low and severely marginalized, also remain largely unacknowledged and un-examined. As a consequence, African-Americans sisters are widely believed to be either myths or relatively recent phenomena fueled by the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the explosive growth of the Church in sub-Saharan Africa over the past half century. By recovering black sisters’ suppressed stories in the United States, Subversive Habits challenges and revises widely accepted narratives about the American Catholic experience, the Church’s relationship to the black freedom movement, and white sisters’ moral leadership in racial justice reform. It also shines important light on one of the forgotten battlegrounds of the African-American freedom struggle and moral war for racial equality—the Catholic Church. When published, Subversive Habits will be the first historical survey of African-American sisters and the first to examine their myriad efforts in the fight against racial segregation and exclusion in the church and wider American society.

She is working on the manuscript for her first book, Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.

Dr. Williams received her B.A. Agnes Scott College, 2004. magna cum laude. Phi Beta Kappa.; M.A. University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2006; Ph.D. Rutgers University, 2013.