Last Thursday night, the Presbyterian Historical Society celebrated the completion of the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon Digital Collection, a collaborative effort among PHS, The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary and The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (Columbia University Libraries).
Coinciding with the fall PHS board meeting, the event saw friends of the society mixing with PHS staff, seminary leaders from Richmond and New York City and members of the Cannon family. After outdoor food and refreshments, attendees gathered inside for a speaker’s program.
Work on The Katie Geneva Cannon Digital Collection began in 2021 and includes personal records distributed among PHS, Union Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Cannon, who died in 2018, was the first African American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and to earn a PhD from Union Theological Seminary. Her creative output as a womanist theologian and educator can now be experienced online by researchers, including nearly 500 sermons (many accessible as audio files), draft writings, poems and works of visual art.
“Free people free people,” the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022), said of Cannon and her legacy during the event. “Dr. Cannon was one of the freest people I have ever witnessed in spirit. Through this collection she is genuinely continuing to free other people to be their best selves.”
The Rev. Dr. Cornell Edmonds, PHS Board Chair, welcomed attendees to the speaker’s program, saying, “Dr. Cannon shaped theology as we know it today.”
Edmonds called the collaboration an example of the kind of trust “we need today — forming connections between three institutions. This collection is unparalleled … It has been imaged so the whole world can see [Cannon’s] legacy.”
Nancy J. Taylor, PHS Executive Director, recalled how the collaboration between institutions and the Cannon family began with PHS Records Archivist David Staniunas having what Taylor called “a compelling idea … Could we bring collections 300 miles apart together?” PHS’s digitization program gave it the capacity to scan the original Cannon records and then return those not deposited at PHS to Richmond and New York City.
Taylor thanked donors to the African American Leaders and Congregations initiative and PHS staff members who led in digitizing the records, making them available through Pearl and planning the event.
Seminary leaders then spoke to the collection’s research value and to Cannon’s career as a womanist theologian and professor.
The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, President Emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, talked about the pride he felt walking past a portrait of Cannon in Richmond. “Her portrait was always a reminder of her brilliance and acumen as a teacher … [Cannon] gloried in the betterment, indeed the success, of others. She wanted students to be transformed by what they had encountered … She wanted to see you become your best self, and she did everything in her power to get you there.”
The Rev. Dr. Melanie Jones Quarles, Director of The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary, shared a story about Cannon traveling to West Africa in 1971.
“It’s not surprising her first task there was to build a library,” Quarles said, noting that Cannon saw her role as working in opposition to the academic structure while also building on it. “I’m grateful Katie Geneva Cannon did her work, and it is for us to build upon it.”
The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, related a conversation with a project librarian who called the collection collaboration “a librarian’s dream … Katie made community happen, so it’s not a surprise this project has been so joyous.”
Jones noted Cannon’s “deep and grounded” faith and her determination to speak truth to power. “Tell the truth until your teeth hurt,” Jones remembered Cannon saying.
Marie Butler, Cannon’s cousin, brought greetings from Campbell A.M.E. Church in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. She said that Cannon received many of her gifts, including her sense of humor, from her mother.
“Katie’s goal was to educate Black people and to make Black women in particular aware that we have a choice of where we want to go,” Butler said. She then asked other family members in attendance from Philadelphia and the South to stand and be acknowledged, a fitting introduction for the last program speaker, Bridgett Cannon, Katie Geneva Cannon’s niece.
Bridgett Cannon, who had delivered the records to the three institutions during the pandemic, said her aunt began preparing for her singular life while growing up in the Fisher Town section of Kannapolis, North Carolina. When she decided to leave Fisher Town, “she paved a road for herself.”
Throughout her life, “she kept everything you could think of,” Bridgett Cannon said. “She recorded her thoughts and words always. She wanted to share herself with the world … I hope we can continue to grow from what she went through and make a path for future generations.”
The program closed with prayer from Starling-Louis.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to gather here to honor the wisdom of your beloved daughter, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon,” the Co-Moderator said. “We thank you for the ways you dedicated her life to promoting justice and equality and wholeness and wellness and shalom … We pray that her legacy of courage and compassion and truth-telling continue to guide us in our own journeys.”
After the speaker’s program, as guests looked at works of art by Cannon, cassette tapes holding original recordings of sermons and merchandise from the Womanist Marketplace, Starling-Louis talked about Cannon’s importance to her as an African American church leader and womanist theologian.
“I’m a pastor in Charlotte Presbytery, an area where Dr. Cannon was ordained by the all-Black Catawba Presbytery,” Starling-Louis said. “When I walk down the hall of my congregation [Memorial Presbyterian Church], I am the first female installed pastor in that space … I genuinely feel her presence there.”
She credited Cannon with demonstrating “how to remain a whole Black woman in the Presbyterian tradition,” something Starling-Louis felt especially aware of while attending a conference at The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership and while traveling to West Africa with a church delegation this summer. In Ghana, Starling-Louis talked with theologian Mercy Oduyoye, one of the first Black women to study theology and Cannon's colleague.
“[Obuyoye] reiterated that Black women around the world have to continue to fight for recognition and respect,” Starling-Louis said. “One of the best gifts of a womanist perspective is that we acknowledge the wisdom of Black women but we are here for all the folk. The fact that I don’t have to sacrifice my personhood is a part of liberation for all of us. We need each other.”
Starling-Louis called the art and poetry in the Katie Geneva Cannon Digital Collection “a manifestation of spirituality … Within the Reformed tradition we talk about how God is creative, and we can participate in that creativity as well. We get to co-create with God the kind of living we are all called to.”
She marveled at Cannon’s use of color in her art and even her marginalia doodles. “It’s almost as if her spirit is one of connection. The lines and jots are a reflection of all that connecting within her. She was always about getting you moving, and there’s a sense of urgency with her work.”
Starling-Louis laughed when asked what lessons she hopes researchers, seminarians and future pastors will take away from the Katie Geneva Cannon Digital Collection.
“Do the doodle!” she said. “Make your own doodle. Take a pause from that paper you’re working on and write a poem. Make your own historical marks.”