Campus Way, the long, wide corridor off the main staircase on the second floor of the Anderson Student Center, bears the footfalls of thousands of students most days of the year. Later this month the walkway officially will bear a new title, Dorsey Way, to commemorate one of the University of St. Thomas’ most historically significant students, Father John Henry "Harry" Dorsey, S.S.J., a pioneering African-American priest of the early 20th century and St. Thomas' first African-American student.
A dedication ceremony will be held Monday, Feb. 27, from 3:30-4:30 p.m. on the second-floor space formerly known as Campus Way.
Senior Cory Kemp, vice president of the Diversity Activities Board in the Division of Student Affairs, learned of Dorsey at a Purple Bench discussion in Student Diversity and Inclusion Services led by Zander Tsadwa '16 last spring. The following week, when Patricia Conde-Brooks, executive director of Campus Inclusion and Community, casually asked for Kemp's opinion on ways the university could show its commitment to diversity, he enthusiastically recommended renaming Campus Way in honor of Dorsey.
Conde-Brooks thought it was a great idea, so Kemp began the renaming effort soon after their conversation, starting with a petition. Kemp said that "with the strong support of other St. Thomas students who believed in the impact this could make," he quickly obtained the required number of signatures to present to members of Undergraduate Student Government. USG approved Kemp’s motion, and this past fall the President’s Cabinet gave the green light to the new name after Kemp formally presented before its members.
"I personally wanted to see a change because I felt there was a lack of representation at St. Thomas," Kemp said. "In all of the buildings around campus, I did not encounter anything named after a student of color, past or present."
He noted that the second-floor hallway of ASC seemed a perfect place to honor Dorsey because the area houses “some of the most important offices related to diversity, inclusion and spirituality,” mentioning Student Diversity and Inclusion Services, the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Office for Spirituality. "These offices represent what Father Dorsey lived his life for," Kemp said.
A brief history of Father Dorsey
As an altar boy at Baltimore's St. Francis Xavier, the first black Catholic church in the United States, Dorsey found his way to the College of St. Thomas through the church's pastor, Father John Slattery, a vocal advocate for black priests. It was Slattery who contacted St. Thomas trustee Archbishop John Ireland to discuss Dorsey's enrollment at the college, and in 1888 Dorsey enrolled as the College of St. Thomas’ first African-American student after accepting Ireland's invitation to attend the (then) St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. Dorsey studied here for one year before returning to his hometown of Baltimore where Slattery had opened his own seminary, Epiphany Apostolic College.
In 1902, Dorsey made history in a bigger way when he became the second African-American ordained priest in the United States. Notably, while a student at Epiphany, Dorsey observed the ordination of the first African-American priest, Charles Randolph Uncles, a fellow St. Francis Xavier parishioner, in 1891.
Dorsey was a priest in the religious order of the Society of Saint Joseph, which was established after the Civil War to give a platform for African-American Catholic priests.
At the turn of the 20th century, racism within the Catholic Church among both clergy and white parishioners ran deep. This bigoted cultural climate mimicked that of America at large and was likely responsible for a few complaints of misconduct brought upon Dorsey in the beginning of his priesthood while he was pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. None of the allegations were able to be substantiated.
Historian Steven Ochs wrote that the few black men to become priests before 1950 "often paid a staggering emotional price for their vocations." Of Dorsey's life in particular, Ochs noted that it "exemplified the heroic suffering of the pioneering Black priests of the early twentieth century. As a Black priest, he endured misunderstanding, humiliation, isolation and discrimination, often from his brother priests. Eventually, the strain wore him down, leaving him only a shell of his former self."
Dorsey himself declared, “From … my ordination to the present, my life has been one heavy cross,” in 1907, only five years after his ordination and shortly after receiving back-to-back complaints. Many times over he believed himself a victim of Southern prejudice.
Later that year, he was transferred to St. Joseph’s College in Montgomery, Alabama, where he taught for close to a decade. Though he continued to face discrimination from within the church, the move proved auspicious in that Dorsey, who was known widely as an eloquent speaker, pursued a track that would open for him a forum perfectly suited to his innate charisma. Traveling as a missionary throughout the South, he gave jubilant revival sermons that attracted large and impassioned audiences, including Booker T. Washington, whom he befriended. Eventually, his renown for his brilliant sermons preceded him.
In 1917, he chose to end his missionary work due to failing health and returned to Baltimore. There, he became pastor of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, a poor black parish, where he served for six years. In 1923, he was physically assaulted by one of his parishioners – struck on the head with a blunt object after the two had an argument. He survived the attack, but the injury resulted in several strokes and paralysis over the next three years that eventually rendered him incapacitated. He died in 1926.