RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon was a theology trailblazer, pushing past boundaries to become the first Black woman in the United States to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church.
A major part of her life and career was spent in Richmond, working at Union Presbyterian Seminary where she has left a lasting legacy in the form of a leadership center and unique branch of theology. Cannon launched the Center for Womanist Leadership just a few months before she died in 2018.
Now that center is named in her honor and continues to embrace values such as sisterhood, liberation, and justice.
Cannon was born in North Carolina in 1950 and grew up in a family of United Presbyterians.
Her colleague and friend Dr. Paula Parker said Cannon knew her passion in life was teaching.
“One of her favorite sayings was. ‘I’m going give you the best I have, so you can be better.’ And that was something her teachers taught her when she was little, and that was very much what she was all about,” Parker said.
Cannon completed her Ph.D. and went on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.
Union Presbyterian Seminary President Dr. Brian Blount says Cannon redefined the faith community for Black women.
“For her, I don’t think groundbreaking was important, but it wasn’t important because of something that was about her, but it was about people around her how she could blaze a path,” Blount said.
Her work eventually brought her to Richmond where she became a professor of Christian ethics at UPSem. While working as a professor Cannon pioneered a new branch of faith called Womanist Theology.
“She broke certainly new ground to re-imagine and to bring into conversation Black women into the field of Christian ethics and theology,” said Director of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership Melanie C. Jones.
Howard University defines womanism, as a feminist movement that centers Black women and acknowledges their “specific struggle for equality.” The term womanist, was coined by renowned author Alice Walker, who traveled to Richmond to give the keynote address at the Center for Womanist Leadership’s inaugural event.
Cannon worked to incorporate those ideals with her Christian faith.
“‘Do the work your soul must have’ is what is what she would say. But she firmly believed that everybody has a purpose for being here, and what she saw herself doing as wholly personal work was to help you identify it and power that,” Parker said.
The center continues carry on her mission through things such as Leadership Institutes and seminary classes.
Parker said, “She opened her presence and her hospitality, I think, has been…That spirit has been transferred to the center so that we try to make space for Black, especially Black women and their dreams. ”