Before They Were Slaves, They Were Catholic By Ajani Gibson, Archdiocese of New Orleans

By: Ajani Gibson, Archdiocese of New Orleans

“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”–James Waldo Johnson, “Black National Anthem”


As the United States takes the month of February to reflect upon the history, the contributions, and the witness of Black people, it is fitting to highlight a little known slave: Cato. He was a Catholic man from the Kingdom of Kongo, which now comprises the country of Angola and the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cato led the largest slave rebellion in the British Mainland Colonies. Cato’s story sheds light on the plight of enslaved Africans as well as the deep Catholic history among those imported to the shores of what would become the United States.

A large number of slaves in the British Colony of South Carolina were from the Kingdom of Kongo. In May of 1491, Nzinga a Nkuwu, King of Kongo, was baptized after welcoming Portuguese missionaries to his land. His court and his people would follow suit in being baptized as Catholics. Nzinga a Nkuwu became a staunch defender of the Catholic faith on the west coast of Africa. This allowed for it to establish deep roots that would carry over the Atlantic Ocean. And so, many slaves came to these shores as faithful Catholics. The Kongelese were proud of their Catholic faith and heritage. It would be Cato’s Catholic faith that would ignite his desire for freedom.

Cato led the rebellion of Stono in South Carolina beginning on September 9, 1739, the day after the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. The Kongelese maintained a profoundly deep devotion to Mary. They saw in Mary a beckon of hope, a champion for freedom, and a protector from the snares of their enemies. It is said that Kongelese slaves maintained the practice of secretly praying the rosary on Saturdays. Cato and his companions drew up their plans after the Mass for the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. On September 9th, they would storm through Stono with flags of white honoring their devotion to “the Lady in White,” Mary.

The climate towards slaves was, of course, one of hostility. However, these hostilities were heightened in light of an anti-Catholic environment prevalent in the British Colonies. The rebellion of Cato and his companions was one fueled by a desire for freedom, both human and spiritual. It was their intention to escape to St. Augustine, Florida. St. Augustine, Florida had one of the largest populations of Afro-Catholics, both free and enslaved.

Though the rebellion would end in the death of 25 colonists and 35 to 50 slaves, including Cato and his companions, they fought with the conviction that God created them free. This freedom was to love and serve him and him alone. They strove for freedom under the mantle of Our Lady. This is a piece of history that is seldomly told and often forgotten. The fight for freedom and human dignity is a religious one. The blood shed by Cato and his companions and many black men and women speak to this truth.

About the Author: Ajani Gibson, Archdiocese of New Orleans

Ajani is a seminarian in Third Theology.


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