A pioneering female minister and scholar of black feminism has died.
Katie Geneva Cannon was born in January 1950 and grew up in Kannapolis, North Carolina – a state, she once said, that she was determined to leave because segregation meant that “I couldn’t go to the library, couldn’t go to the swimming pool, couldn’t go to the YWCA”. She studied science at Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina (1971) and went on to a master’s in divinity at the Joseph C. Smith Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia (1974). In 1974, she became the first black woman to be ordained a minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, now part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
After working as a supply pastor (1975-77), Professor Cannon became an instructor in Christian theological ethics at the New York Theological Seminary (1977-80). She would later obtain a PhD from the same institution (1983) drawing on the work of the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston to develop “resources for a constructive ethic for black women”. She developed her research while based at the Harvard Divinity School (1983-84), the Episcopal Divinity School (1984-92) and Temple University (1992-2001) before being appointed Annie Scales Rogers professor of Christian social ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. She was to remain there until her death, albeit with interludes as the Lilly distinguished visiting professor of religion at Davidson College in North Carolina and the Sterling Brown visiting professor in religion and African American studies at Williams College in Massachusetts.
A central figure in the brand of feminism known as “womanism”, which puts the lived experience of black women centre stage, Professor Cannon published Black Womanist Ethics (1988) and Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (1995) as well as Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric (2002) and The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology (edited with Anthony B. Pinn, 2014). While at Union, she served as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2004-08) and set up the Center for Womanist Leadership. Earlier this year, she co-organised a major conference where more than 1,500 female clerics and community leaders came to hear speakers including the novelist Alice Walker, said to be the inventor of the term “womanist”.
It was also this year that Professor Cannon announced that she was suffering from acute leukaemia and required frequent transfusions, which led Union to launch a blood drive among its faculty, staff, students and alumni. She died on 8 August.