Saturday, August 10, 2019

Honoring Katie Cannon, Womanist Pioneer

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon died a year ago, on August 8, 2018. This article honors the life and legacy of this outstanding black woman. 
Katie Geneva Cannon (1950~2018)
Who Was Katie Cannon?
Katie Cannon was born in 1950 in Kannapolis, North Carolina, the town that grew up around Cannon Manufacturing, the textile mill that began production in 1908 and soon became the world’s largest producer of sheets and towels.
That company, which in 1928 became Cannon Mills, was founded by J.W. Cannon (1852~1921), and Katie was a descendant of slaves who were owned by his family at the time of his birth.
In 1974, Katie Cannon was the first African American woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA. She also was the first black woman to earn both the M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Through the years, Cannon taught in several universities and seminaries/divinity schools. From 1993~2001 she was a professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University.
June’s and my daughter Karen, who is now a professor at the University of Arizona and head of the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, did her graduate work at Temple. During her Ph.D. studies there, Cannon was one of her main professors and her dissertation advisor.
(I was happy to have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Katie during that time.)
Cannon finished her career as Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond (Va.), where she taught from 2001 until her death last year.
The Womanist Ethics of Katie Cannon
Alice Walker, best known for her award-winning book The Color Purple, coined the term womanist in her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose. Katie Cannon soon began popularizing that term in theological circles.
Cannon’s first major book was Black Womanist Ethics (1988), and she became the first theologian to use the term womanist widely. (She accepted Walker’s definition of womanist as a black feminist or feminist of color.)
Early in her book, Cannon states:
Black women are the most vulnerable and the most exploited members of the American society. The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities combined with patriarchal contempt for women has caused the Black woman to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds (p. 4).
That is a compelling statement of the challenge Katie Cannon spent her lifetime combatting—and her efforts helped to make American society better than it was thirty years ago, although there is still much that needs to be done.
Tributes to Katie Cannon
In April of last year, the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership was inaugurated at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Alice Walker (b. 1944) was the guest speaker at the inaugural ceremonies. 
Katie Cannon and Alice Walker (4/18)
In January 2020, the first issue of the new Wabash Center Journal on Teaching (formerly Teaching Theology and Religion) will include a special section on Katie Cannon's contributions to the development of womanist pedagogy.
Our daughter Karen was one of Cannon’s former students asked to write a brief article for that special edition. Here is how she began her tribute to her graduate school professor:
Katie Geneva Cannon’s life and legacy stand as a call to grapple with the injustices of the past and present while creatively constructing previously unimaginable futures.
With Karen and many others, I am still sad because of Cannon’s passing last year at the age of 68. Still, there is much to celebrate because of Katie’s active efforts to combat racism and sexism.
American society has been made better because of how Katie Cannon creatively confronted those challenges—and taught her students to do the same. 


  1. A great Presbyterian woman. Thanks for this.

    1. Bill, thanks for reading and being the first to respond on Saturday morning.

      Since you write so much, I appreciate you taking the time to read my article and to post your comments here. And, yes, I think Katie Cannon was a women you Presbyterians can be proud of.


  2. Thanks Leroy,
    I continue to appreciate the outstanding people I've not known and you point to. I'm working a list of Black I know that I will want to share this with.
    Les Hill

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Les. And thanks for sharing this with your Black friends; if they don't know about Katie Cannon, I'm sure they will be glad to learn about such an outstanding Black woman.

  3. Perhaps because it is Saturday, there have been few comments about today's blog article. I appreciate the brief comments posted above by local Thinking Friend Bill and Thinking Friend Les in Kentucky. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing to our attention these two remarkable women, Katie Cannon and Alice Walker.

    "I have a special sympathy for women of color because they must deal with the double whammy of racism and sexism. I once worked with a woman of color and I asked her if she faced more discrimination as a person of color or as a woman. She replied 'as a woman.' It has been argued that ultimately all discrimination is rooted in sexism and misogyny as sexism exists in all racial groups. But whether racial or sexual discrimination, we must continue to fight to end it."

    1. Thanks, for writing, Eric. Yes, it is because of that "double whammy" that Alice Walker coined, and Katie Cannon used, the word womanist.

  4. Leroy:
    Thank you for reminding us that the battle for equality for women and for Blacks needs to be removed from the "back burner" of our thinking, to the "front burner." We have made progress but that must not be an excuse for diminishing the struggle for true equality for these heroic people.

    Truett Baker

  5. This is a P.S. to my earlier comment. I know your parents, my dear friends from the past, must be incredibly proud of their son and granddaughter.

  6. Yesterday, Local Thinking Friend Bob Leeper, who is a little older than I, sent me an email with the following comments:

    "Leroy, thanks for your intellectual handling of these important topics. My lasting memory of severe mistreatment of a black woman happened early 1955, as I was attending all-white Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina; when I was riding on a public transit bus which seemed full; standing room only. At a stop, an older black woman carrying a shopping bag got on the bus; paid her fee; then the bus driver screamed at her like at a dog, to get off the bus and walk back to the back exit door so she could get back on (and not have to make her way through those standing in the isles).

    "As she struggled up those rear stairs, I visualized my grandmother under the strain of over-work and being dehumanized. It framed my views on racial injustice; mistreatment of the poor and racial injustice are forever a blend in my mind."

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Bob.

      Katie Cannon was just a little girl in 1955, but I'm sure she heard of stories like that during her growing-up years. I am thankful that she grew up with the courage and determination to work toward changing the unjust structure of American society.