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Catholic Education, CUA and America’s ‘First’ Black Presidential Nominee


On Aug. 28, Sen. Barack Obama became the first African-American to be nominated for president by one of America’s major political parties. His candidacy led some to try to single out the very first film or work of literature that depicted a black presidential nominee, and that search led to … The Catholic University of America.

According to a Feb. 1 National Public Radio blog, it seems that the first depiction of a black presidential nominee was in 1964. That year, a Catholic biweekly comic book called Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact published a comic-strip drama from January to June about the future (1976) presidential campaign of the fictional Gov. Timothy Pettigrew of New York.

The comic was, to say the least, way ahead of its time. In 1964, blacks in many Southern states weren’t allowed to vote, much less run for political office.

The comic book was distributed to hundreds of thousands of Catholic school pupils, and this year dozens have written to NPR and to Catholic University saying that they suddenly recalled the Gov. Pettigrew comic strip when Sen. Obama became the Democratic frontrunner. Some have testified that the Pettigrew strip changed their lives profoundly back in 1964. Others have asked CUA if they could get a photocopy of the comic since they heard that the university was responsible for the genesis of the comic book and its anti-racist message.

The back story on CUA’s involvement in the comic book reveals the little-known but momentous role that the university has played in Catholic education. That back story began amidst the geopolitical turmoil caused by the rise of Nazism, Japan’s invasion of China, and Stalin’s genocide of millions of his subjects in the pre-World War II years. In 1938, Pope Pius XI foresaw the likelihood of a world war and was gravely concerned about the breakdown of liberty and political morality in countries around the globe.

“The world has entered upon one of those periods of unrest, of questioning, of disorientation and of conflict which have been well described as turning points of history,” the Pope wrote to the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States on Sept. 21, 1938. “Dangerous theories which a few years ago were but whispered … are today preached from the housetops, and are even finding their way into action; private immorality and public subversion have in many places raised the banner of revolt against the Cross of Christ.”

In that hour of need, the Pope turned to the Church in America and its flagship university to nurture the Christian principles of equality, freedom, justice and charity. In his letter to the U.S. bishops on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of The Catholic University of America’s founding, he asked the bishops to commission CUA to spearhead that Christian mission through “a constructive program of social action” in the disciplines of civics, sociology and economics.

Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, archbishop of Philadelphia, wrote three weeks later that “to carry out the injunction of the Holy Father it is necessary that our people, from childhood to mature age, be ever better instructed in the true nature of Christian democracy. … To foster this Christian concept of citizenship, the Bishops have charged The Catholic University of America to compile at once a more comprehensive series of graded texts for all educational levels. On the foundation of religious training, these texts will build an enlightened, conscientious American citizenship.”

It became an ambitious undertaking: to upgrade the reading, civics and social studies curricula and textbooks for millions of students in America’s Catholic schools, integrating those subjects with the ideals of Catholic social teaching and American democracy.

Catholic University in 1939 founded the Commission on American Citizenship, run by CUA administrators and faculty, to undertake the Pope’s and bishops’ assignment. Just four years later, the commission had already published six of the textbooks (for grades one through six) in its growing series of “Faith and Freedom Readers.”

Few could have anticipated the books’ success. By 1946, 6,000 of the nation’s 8,000 Catholic elementary schools were using these readers. By 1952, sales of the Faith and Freedom Readers had risen to more than 8.5 million volumes, setting records for longest sustained sales of a series of textbooks in either Catholic or public schools. The commission also shaped the curricula of most of the country’s Catholic schools.

The new textbooks were designed to help a child understand “his obligation to love and cherish all men, regardless of race or color or creed,” wrote Wingate Snell, assistant director of the commission. The books inculcated this theme through dramatic stories, articles and poems related to contemporary American life and the Church’s contributions to Western civilization.

In addition to publishing many other widely used textbooks, the CUA commission oversaw the creation of civics clubs in Catholic schools, mostly among eighth-graders. By 1959, more than 4,000 such clubs had sprung up, with an average of 40 members per club. Led by the students with the guidance of their teachers, the clubs toured governmental institutions, organized neighborhood clean-up projects, visited the sick of the parish and sought in additional ways to practice Christian social principles.

The commission also sponsored the publication of children’s magazines that were distributed in Catholic schools and — because so many children of that day read comic books — engaged the George A. Pflaum Co. of Dayton, Ohio, to publish Treasure Chest of Fact & Fun. The comic book emphasized ideals of patriotism, faith, racial equality and anti-communism, but also included a good deal of plain old fun.

The commission and comic book finally came to an end around 1970, in part because of decreased enrollment in Catholic schools.

Looking back, the effectiveness of the commission’s work in the hearts and minds of students is hard to quantify, though one positive indicator is the continuing impact — 44 years after its publication — of the Gov. Pettigrew comic book story.

One listener wrote to NPR this year, saying, “On the day after the Wisconsin primary [which Barack Obama won], I am thinking about Timothy Pettigrew and remembering my awe looking at those last panels [of the comic]. ‘Of course,’ I remember thinking. I was 13 and my eyes were opened.”

Another man wrote that the Pettigrew “story was a major motivational factor in my life. I can still ‘tear up’ remembering that final drawing when I was in sixth grade. … As the product of working class parents in the Northeast, ‘Pettigrew for President’ was my first moment to really think about matters of race.”

The author conducted research at the Catholic University Archives for this article and wishes to thank the staff there. To purchase black-and-white photocopies of all 60 pages of the Gov. Pettigrew strip for $12, call CUA’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at 202-319-5065.

Pettigrew comic
The Nominee for President? It’s Gov. Timothy Pettigrew!
Although the Pettigrew comic strips were published in 1964, the story is set 13 years in the future, in the bicentennial year of 1976. Pettigrew’s features are shown only in silhouette and his comments often emanate from just outside the comic strip panel, so it was not until the final page of the last installment — when he has just won the nomination of his party — that readers saw and understood he was a black man. Throughout the series, readers get an impression of Pettigrew as a principled, kind and wise politician — and then they grapple with their own views of race when they learn he is African-American.

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Revised: November 2008

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