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J.D. Long GarcíaMarch 15, 2021
Mulledy Hall, also known as Freedom Hall, center, is seen on the campus of Georgetown University April 4, 2017. In 2019, the building was renamed after Isaac Hawkins, the first enslaved person listed in the Jesuit university's documents on its selling of slaves. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

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The Society of Jesus is partnering with the descendants of people once enslaved by the religious order to reconcile and heal the deep racial wounds of America. The GU272 Descendants Association, which takes its name from the 272 enslaved people sold by Georgetown University, and the Jesuits are forming the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, a partnership that seeks to accelerate racial healing and advance racial justice in the United States.

The Jesuits have pledged to raise $100 million for descendants, according to The New York Times, which first reported the announcement of the foundation. The foundation maintains a longer term goal of raising a billion dollars for the project. 

“From our inception, the GU272 Descendants Association has chosen to identify and rebuild our ancestors’ families that were separated and often destroyed by the brutal institution of slavery and to create a sustainable mechanism for investing forward in uplifting descendants for many generations to come,” said Cheryllyn Branch, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, in a press release. “Through the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, we will restore honor and dignity to our ancestors by institutionalizing these goals for our children, our children’s children, and descendants for centuries to come.”

"Our way of restoring honor and dignity to our ancestors is to institutionalize these goals for our children, our children’s children and descendants for centuries to come.”

The foundation will support the educational aspirations of descendants in the future and support programs and initiatives that advance racial equality.

“For more than 400 years, our country has denied the persistent human destruction caused by slavery and the conscious and unconscious racism that divides communities and our nation,” said Joe Stewart, acting president of the foundation and one of more than a thousand descendants of Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved man who, along with other enslaved men, women and children, was sold to save Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) from financial ruin.

“After 182 years, descendants and Jesuits have come together in the spirit of truth, racial healing and reconciliation, uniquely positioning the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation to set an example and lead America through dismantling the remnants of slavery and mitigating the presence of racism,” he said in a press release. “Our partnership will pursue and support the creation of a new and abiding reality of love and justice for all members of our one humanity.”

The foundation, which represents more than 10,000 descendants, also plans to be in conversation with other universities that have a history of profiting from the enslavement of people. In 2016, Georgetown University created the Georgetown Slavery Archive to house material related to the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus (now part of the East Province of the Society of Jesus) and the university’s own ties to enslavement. These documents, which were digitized, led to the identification of thousands of descendants.

“Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today."

“Our shameful slaveholding history in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back,” said Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. “Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today. The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation. Without this joining of hearts and hands in true unity, the cycle of hatred and inequality in America will never end.”

In 1838, the Jesuit owners of Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people—including men, women and children—to plantation owners in Louisiana for $115,000. That is the equivalent of approximately $3.3 million today. The enslaved people were used as collateral by Citizens Bank of New Orleans, which was later acquired by JPMorgan Chase.

“The institution of slavery and systemic racism are tragic parts of America’s history, and we have a responsibility to drive sustainable change for the people and communities who’ve been impacted by this bitter legacy,” said Brian Lamb, the global head of diversity and inclusion at JPMorgan Chase, a major supporter of the foundation. “We are proud to support the descendants and Jesuits as they pursue solutions through truth, racial healing and transformation to help dismantle the legacy of slavery and to build a more equitable society both now and for generations to come.”

This article has been updated. 

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