African American Leaders: the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon | Presbyterian Historical Society

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African American Leaders: the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

October 25, 2023

Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.

Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.


Leading Womanist theologian and the first African American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (UPCUSA), Katie Geneva Cannon, was born in North Carolina on January 3, 1950. Katie was one of seven children born to Esau and Corine Cannon , and her childhood was spent in a segregated town, Kannapolis, where she and her siblings were prohibited from using communal facilities like the local library and swimming pool. Her mother, Corine, was the first woman to work at the Cannon Mills Company, a textile factory in Kannapolis. She and Esau were elders at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Kannapolis, though Katie and her siblings attended a Lutheran school for their early childhood education—the only education available to her during that time as a Black girl.

After graduating from George Washington Carver High School in 1967, Katie went on to graduate from Barber-Scotia College with a bachelor’s degree, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity, and Union Theological Seminary with both a Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy. During that time, it was more mainstream for a woman enrolled at the Interdenominational Theological Center (where Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is part of the campus) to pursue a Master’s in Christian Education, so for Cannon to pursue a Master of Divinity was off the beaten path. Shortly after she graduated with this degree, in 1974, Cannon became the first Black woman to be ordained in the UPCUSA.

Katie G. Cannon preaching, 1993. [Pearl ID: 171119].

In 2001, the Rev. Dr. Cannon began teaching at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Prior to this faculty position, she had worked at Temple University, Episcopal Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School. Not only was she a renowned lecturer, she was also the author and editor of several articles and books, including her seminal work Katie's Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community.

As she made history as an African American woman scholar of religion, the Rev. Dr. Cannon also broke ground as a founder of Womanist theology. Novelist and poet Alice Walker is often acknowledged as the coiner of the term Womanism—Katie Cannon took this term and weaved it into her theological studies and teachings. Womanist examines the intersection of feminism, racial identity, and more; the Rev. Dr. Cannon applied a womanist approach to theology, and made history doing so.

Left: Katie G. Cannon, 1983. [Pearl ID:174066]. Right: Handwritten sermon by Dr. Cannon, "When You Think You've Had Enough," 1974.

Cannon’s influence in the world of Christian education and theology did not go unnoticed. Rather, she received a variety of accolades and awards during her career, and after it. A distinguished professor award from Spelman College; the Lucy Craft Laney Award at the Black Presbyterian Bicentennial Celebration; the Beautiful Are The Feet Award from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference; the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011 from the American Academy of Religion; and, finally, in 2018, Cannon was honored at the PCUSA’s General Assembly, where she received the Excellence in Theological Education Award a few months before she passed.

Cannon’s final success in her long legacy was the founding of the Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary in April 2018. After her death in August 2018—she had been diagnosed with acute leukemia—the Center was renamed The Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership in her honor.

"Remembering What We Never Knew: The Epistemology of Womanist Ethics" (Full version here.) | Sermon as Genre: Black Preaching as Process in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston (Full version here.)

The Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon’s memory and influence lives on, never to be forgotten. The Presbyterian Historical Society plays a small part in this remembrance through the Katie Geneva Cannon Digital Collection, which exists on Pearl, PHS’s digital archive. The project began in 2021 with the goal of having a single online repository for Dr. Cannon’s personal records. In collaboration with Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (Columbia University Libraries), the Presbyterian Historical Society has digitized over 450 sermons, lectures, and writings of Cannon's—all accessible through Pearl Digital Collections.

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