He was among the most celebrated writers of his time, a world traveler, pioneer of civil rights, and an acquaintance of Ernest Hemingway, but when he died, Roi Ottley was virtually forgotten—and forgotten, too, was his remarkable encounter with Pope Pius XII.
In the 1940s, when African Americans were still suffering massive discrimination, Ottley, then one of the few black news correspondents working in Europe, requested a meeting with Pope Pius XII. Not only did Pius receive him, but did so for an entire hour—more time than was usually given statesmen—and their subsequent exchange highlighted Catholic teaching against racism and the prophetic vision of both men.
How Ottley came to meet Pius XII, and why he wrote about him so admiringly, is an inspiring story that deserves to be better known.
Ottley was born in Harlem in 1906, and grew up among a literal Who’s Who of future African-American luminaries, including politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and jazz musician Thomas “Fats” Waller. A gifted student-athlete, Roi caught the attention of numerous colleges, and eventually accepted a scholarship from St. Bonaventure University. Though he only spent two years there (1926-1928), Ottley remembered the Franciscans well. Years later, he would tell the New York Post that “he found no racial prejudices” at the Catholic university, but only support. The same was not the case at the next school he attended, the University of Michigan, where he was excluded from debating societies, and banned from the drama club. Disappointed, but determined to fight that kind of prejudice, he returned to New York.
Ottley worked at whatever jobs he could find during the Depression—as a bellhop, railroad porter, and social worker—until he found his true calling as a writer. His big break came when he was asked to write a column for the Amsterdam News, “Hectic Harlem,” covering the battle for racial justice in cultural and political affairs. Ottley soon obtained funding from the New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Project, and eventually published a book about the modern black experience, New World A-Coming (1943), which made him nationally famous. The Saturday Review called it “magnificent” and praised Ottley’s universal vision of mankind. He understood, said the Review, that the evil of racism was not unique: “It is, as the author points out, the same problem of prejudice which in varying degrees affects all groups of whatever color, race or religion. It is the problem of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, or anti-anything.”
Ottley’s belief in the universal brotherhood of mankind was in harmony with Catholic teaching, which was then in its own fight against racism.
In 1944, the New York Times reported on how, “fulfilling the instructions of Pope Pius XII,” the Catholic University of America had hosted a conference condemning racism in all its manifestations, citing “the great moral or natural law, universal as human nature, before which all men are equal.” The following year, Commonweal magazine published a groundbreaking article, “The Sin of Segregation,” by Father George Dunne, S.J., in which he called for “an uncompromising repudiation of racism in all its forms,” quoting the words of Pope Pius XII: “The only road to salvation is definitely to repudiate all pride of race and blood.”
Pius XII was also monitoring the American situation. When word reached him that an American priest in Indianapolis had declared no black would be welcome in his parish, the pope immediately had him removed and disciplined.
How much Ottley knew about these specific events is unknown, but he certainly knew about the Church’s principled stand against racism, and he praised it in the days leading up to his visit with the pope.
In 1944, Ottley was commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army, and was sent to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for two years. As an established writer, he had been allowed to interview Allied leaders, and when he arrived in Italy, he made a bid to speak with the pope. Ottley never dreamed of what would happen next.
“One gray morning in Rome,” he recalled, “I was startled awake in my room at the Hotel de la Ville.”
He was called downstairs where he found “a gold-braided messenger bearing a gold-engraved invitation. The invitation announced that I had been granted a private audience with His Holiness, Pope Pius XII—the first ever granted a Negro correspondent.”
Wonder and appreciation filled Ottley’s mind that day, as he made his way to the Vatican. He recalled the African popes the Church had elected, the black saints it has honored, and was struck by the absence of racism in Vatican City and among Italian Catholics in general. “The fact is,” he wrote, “so many Negroes have been prominent in the history of the Church that everyone in Italy accepts this racial development as the natural course of things.”
As he finally made his way to the papal chambers, through a maze of rooms and officials, Ottley was welcomed by the pope. In No Green Pastures (1951), his book about Europe, Ottley described the meeting with eloquence and grace:
The bespectacled Pontiff was seated comfortably in a huge gold chair. His manner was calmly unhurried. His eyes friendly. He wore a rich, cream-colored cassock and skull cap, with a heavy gold crucifix dangling from his neck. He was a straight, strong, thin and tranquil figure . . .
His Holiness spoke English haltingly. But he asked surprisingly acute questions about Negroes. . . . This statesman, one of the most impressive figures of our time, inspired a remarkable kind of confidence, which led me into describing conditions under which many Negroes live in America. The Pope was manifestly pained by the report. But he brightened perceptibly, when he told me of the reports gathered by parish priests in Italy, which described Negroes stationed in the country as kind, good-humored and winning. He asked me to convey a “special message” to Negroes in the U.S. He sighed and momentarily seemed to be gathering his strength. When he next spoke his words were uttered with great emphasis. He asked that I report the Holy Father’s hope for the Negro’s happiness, well-being and ultimate triumph over racial obstacles. Thus, by implication, did the Pontiff bring to the Negro’s side the moral weight of the Church.
Ottley contrasted the pope’s position with those who had sanctioned colonialism and attacks on minorities:
As supreme ruler of an organization which for two thousand years has helped mold civilization, Pope Pius XII has not allowed the Church to forfeit the initiative in the racial crisis of our time. He has clearly struck out against racialism. Laws against marriage between white and Negro persons have met his unambiguous opposition: “No human law can take from man the natural and primitive right to marriage.” He has sought to broaden racial representation within the Church by the revolutionary elevation of Negro bishops and a Chinese cardinal. “This Church,” he asserted, “does not belong to one race or one people, or one nation, but to all peoples of the human family.” His position has been reflected in the outspoken defense of Negro rights by the Catholic clergy in the U.S. and by the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano, which in 1949 translated Vincent Baker’s book about race relations in the U. S., Negro Youth and Social Action.
The most moving part of Ottley’s testimony was when he came to the very end, recording Pius XII’s words for posterity:
Toward the close of my audience with the Holy Father he eyed me steadily for a moment, his expressive hands fingering the large gold crucifix dangling from the heavy gold chain, his eyes sparkling behind glasses. His face, pale as fine Carrara marble, broke into a warm smile. “Yes,” he said firmly, “the blacks will one day live like other men.”
Roi Ottley himself never lived to witness the triumph of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He died, tragically and prematurely, of a heart attack in 1960, when he was just 54 years old. But long before that, and long before blacks would achieve full equality in America, this dedicated champion of civil rights had the comfort of believing that day would arrive—and have his faith affirmed in it by the Vicar of Christ.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Roi Ottley Collection, St. Bonaventure University.
“Pope Pius Receives an American Negro,” by Roi Ottley, Catholic Digest, November 1950, pp. 8-10.
No Green Pastures: The Negro in Europe Today by Roi Ottley (Charles Scribners, 1951)
Roi Ottley’s World War II: The Lost Diary of an African American Journalist, edited by Mark A. Huddle (University Press of Kansas, 2011)
“Priest Denounces Race Bias in U.S.,” New York Times, November 19, 1944.
“The Sin of Segregation,” by George H. Dunne, S.J., Commonweal, September 21, 1945, pp. 542-545; reprinted by the Catholic Interracial Council.
“Primer for the Race of the Living,” by Arthur Garfield Hays (review of Ottley’s New World A-Coming), Saturday Review, September 18, 1943, p. 16.
“Ottley Recalls His Private Audience with Pope Pius XII,” Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1953.
“Ottley Tells of Pope’s Grasp of Race Issue,” Chicago Tribune, October 10, 1958.
“Roi Ottley Dies,” New York Times Obituary, October 2, 1960.
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