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J.D. Long GarcíaMarch 29, 2021
Photographs of descendants of enslaved people who were sold by Georgetown University and the Maryland Jesuits to southern Louisiana in 1838. (Claire Vail/American Ancestors/New England Historic Genealogical Society via AP)Photographs of descendants of enslaved people who were sold by Georgetown University and the Maryland Jesuits to southern Louisiana in 1838. (Claire Vail/American Ancestors/New England Historic Genealogical Society via AP)

The names of all 272 enslaved people sold by the Society of Jesus in 1838 to save Georgetown University are inscribed in the bill of sale. “Isaac, a man sixty five years of age, Charles, his eldest son, forty years of age, Nelly his daughter, thirty eight years of age, Henny, a girl thirteen years of age, Cecilia, a girl eight years of age, Ruthy, a girl six years of age…..”

From the bill of sale, it is clear that most of the enslaved people sold by the Jesuits were under 20, and more than 80 of them were under 10. The bill of sale and the records kept by the Jesuits made the formation of the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation possible, according to Joseph M. Stewart, the fifth-generation grandson of Isaac Hawkins, one of the enslaved persons sold in 1838.

“It identified our ancestors and gave us the ability to organize into an association,” he said in an interview with America.

The foundation, announced on March 15 in The New York Times, is a partnership between the descendants’ group, known as GU272 Descendants, and the Society of Jesus. The leaders of the foundation said its collaboration with the Jesuits addresses a specific historical injustice but more broadly seeks to offer a model that might accelerate racial healing and advance racial justice in the United States. The Jesuits have pledged to raise $100 million for the effort, but the foundation has a long-term goal of raising $1 billion dollars.

The collaboration with the Jesuits seeks to offer a model that might accelerate racial healing and advance racial justice in the United States. 

“This is the only effort of organized descendants and a large religious organization within the Catholic Church,” said Mr. Stewart, the acting president of the association. “We don’t think this has ever existed before.”

The foundation will support the education of descendants for future generations and provide direct relief to the impoverished, the infirm and elderly.

Georgetown's original sin
The first meeting of descendants took place in August 2016. Nine descendants got together, though they did not know each other well, according to Mr. Stewart. They had learned more about their ancestry through a New York Times article and the Georgetown Slavery Archive, created by the university in 2016 to archive material related to the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus (now part of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus).

At the time of the sale, the Maryland Jesuits had been owners of enslaved people for more than 100 years. The Jesuits acquired enslaved individuals as gifts and through purchase. When enslaved women had children, those children were counted as enslaved, according to historians. The Jesuits were the biggest planters in Maryland at the time and grew tobacco, the cash crop of the region. Enslaved persons owned by the Jesuits also worked in carpentry, as cooks and as artisans.

Owning enslaved persons became less profitable for the Jesuits in the 19th century. They could not decide whether to hold on to the enslaved persons, sell them or free them. Finally, in the 1830s, with Georgetown’s debt rising, the Jesuits decided to sell the enslaved people to plantations in the deep south. Their journey by ship to Louisiana took three weeks.

“If you show me racist people in the Catholic Church, I’m not going to say, ‘I can’t be Catholic.’ I’m going to say, ‘They aren’t right.’”

“Most of us knew only one, two generations back; and when we became aware, our thoughts went to: ‘How do we restore dignity to our ancestors? What do we do about investing in future descendants and not ourselves?’” Mr. Stewart said. “So the first thing we decided was we were not going to pursue monetary payments for us individually, but that the Jesuits should invest in the future of descendants, through a partnership with us in a stand-alone foundation.”

Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said shame can sometimes stand in the way of recognizing the ongoing sin of racism. “I don’t believe that as a country or as a church, we have seriously reconcilied with the sin of slavery,” he said.

Father Kesicki pointed to “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” a 1999 document issued by the International Theological Commission. “It was really a deep dive into the historic sins of our faith,” he said.

Learning, for example, of infants who were born into slavery, treated as someone else’s property, can lead to feeling of shame and fear, he said, but confronting those hard truths can also lead to conversion and hope.

Getting beyond shame
Mr. Stewart also underscored the role of shame in reconciliation. “We should be ashamed, but we can’t live in that,” he said.

“We need to let shame be a motivation for doing the right things to change the sin that was committed against humanity and against people, and truly against the Catholic Church, which is supposed to be representing God in all of this.”

Mr. Stewart grew up attending a little church in Louisiana, the state into which his ancestors were sold. He had to sit on the other side of the church from white parishioners.

“We don’t have a lot Catholic hierarchs who are outspoken in their disdain for racism.”

“I was able to do that because the first thing that meant something to me was that I believe in God. It wasn’t saying I believe in all these people who are sitting on the other side of the church, who didn’t want me sitting on that side of the church,” he said. “So I could continue to embrace my faith knowing it was about God…. If Catholics want to be a part of living up to God’s [vision of] one humanity, then we have to start moving from shame to positive action to dismantle the legacy of slavery and mitigate the impact of racism.”

Mr. Stewart, who is 78, is a practicing Catholic. While attending Mass recently, he reflected on how little he has heard about racism from the pulpit. “In all those years, I have not heard a sermon where a priest stood at the altar and took issue with racism in the church,” he said, “where a priest said, ‘No more Blacks on that side and whites on this side.’ That we’re all God’s children.”

Joseph Brown, S.J., a professor at Southern Illinois University’s Department of Africana Studies, compared the process of racial reconciliation to the sacrament of confession. “The first thing you have to do when you go to confession is say, ‘Father, forgive me for I have sinned.’ If you don’t do that, you haven’t started the sacrament.”

Those confessing admit their sins—the ways they have stepped away from God and their fellow human beings in selfish and damaging ways. And then, Father Brown said, they ask for God’s forgiveness, they promise not to repeat their sins and commit to repairing the damage done.

While some historians had written about the Jesuits’ connection to slavery, Father Brown said it has been “conveniently suppressed by those who dominate the stories being told within the Society of Jesus. But when The New York Times publishes something, it becomes unavoidable.”

Father Brown credits Father Kesicki for being open to a different approach and taking the steps of the sacrament of confession. In 2017, before 100 descendants, Father Kesicki formally apologized for the 1838 sale and took responsibility in the name of the Society of Jesus.

“He stood there and did exactly what he was called to do, in all humility,” Father Brown said. “And because he did it correctly, in the most Catholic way possible and in the most social justice way possible, the descendants were able to say, ‘Thank you. Now let’s get busy.’ And they did.”

He also said that Mr. Stewart’s now famous slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” is part of addressing racial injustice and bringing about healing. Father Brown also recalled Thea Bowman’s 1989 statement before the U.S. bishops, “I come to my church, fully functioning.”

“I have not heard a sermon where a priest stood at the altar and took issue with racism in the church.”

“That sentence alone shapes the entire conversation and the entire dynamic that we have to be about,” he said. “I come to my church, you didn’t let me in. You didn’t allow me to sit here. It is my church. Black hands built the buildings. We know this. It’s not about: ‘We’re going to make room for you in our church.’”

He suggests the church needs to move beyond “us and them” language. “The descendants are moving along and they have done something that is absolutely grace-filled,” Father Brown said. “They’re not saying, ‘Give us money.’ They’re saying, ‘Use your money and your connection to make sure that we repair the damage.’”

Father Brown shared numerous instances where he confronted racism within the church—including enduring a bishop who refused to desegregate the parishes, the schools and the hospitals in East St. Louis—in discerning his vocation to the priesthood and while serving as the confirmation sponsor for his nephew.

When they sought to enter the Catholic Church as converts, his parents were told by their priest that he could not continue to give them instruction. His parishioners would “run me out of town.” Parishioners at that church in southern Illinois did not want Black people in their church, Father Brown said, so his parents went back to East St. Louis and joined a church run by a society of African missionaries.

“But if you tell me that racism is terrible and a sin and awful and then you show me racist people in the Catholic Church, I’m not going to say, ‘I can’t be Catholic.’ I’m going to say, ‘They aren’t right,’” Father Brown said.

A brokenness that can be healed
He will know the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation has been a success when the Society of Jesus works in such a way that one of the descendants chooses to become a Jesuit. “That will be the touchstone,” Father Brown said. “And I am so deeply committed to that vision. If you do things the right way, broken marriages, broken relationships can be healed. Well, this is a major place of brokenness, but we have all the Scripture and history that tells us it can be done.”

Gregory Chisholm, S.J., pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, Resurrection and All Saints in Harlem, said the events of the last year have brought many of the ongoing difficulties, the pain and anger of the community into public view.

“It has also revealed that it’s unfortunate that our Catholic Church is not really at the forefront of these kinds of efforts to build racial bridges,” he said. “That needs to be nuanced somewhat: There are areas of Catholic life that have been very concerned about being available to those in need for decades. It is a challenge that we don’t have a lot Catholic hierarchs who are outspoken in their disdain for racism. You would like to hear the leaders of our church say what you sometimes hear leaders of Black churches say.”

“Racism’s real nucleus and energy, as well as its greatest damage done, remains on the level of the human heart.”

Since he joined the Jesuits in 1980, Father Chisholm estimated that fewer than 20 Black men reached final vows in that order. But by the time he joined the Jesuits, he said, he had learned how to work in a white world.

“It becomes more incumbent on the Black man or woman to be able to integrate into a white society,” Father Chisholm said. “The Black man or woman ends up developing the kind of double consciousness that W. E. B. Dubois used to talk about. Or the bilingual character that some more contemporary commentators will talk about.”

Being bilingual in this sense refers to a person from a minority community speaking to the majority in one way, but speaking to his or her own community in another way. People of the majority do not have the experience of trying to fit into a larger white society, so they can underestimate the challenges faced by a person of color.

“The reason it is hard to bring people to the table in order to engage in the challenge is that they don’t really have to; they don’t have to come to a better experience of what it’s like to be Black,” he said. “They are entirely insulated from those concerns.”

Still segregated

When John LaFarge was in formation as a Jesuit, superiors sent him to the counties of southern Maryland, the site of the former Jesuit plantations. Many Black families there were Catholic.

“He came to a genuine appreciation of the plight of Blacks,” Father Chisholm said. “He was forced into that. He was a bit of a patrician and would not have had anything to do with Blacks. But he did learn this, and it changed him.”

LaFarge went on to become editor in chief of America and sponsored an interracial program in the United States, which Father Chisholm said had some small effect, but “our lives are still segregated,” he said, pointing to the Archdiocese of New York in particular. “You have the largely white churches that are north of the city, and then there are other churches of color that are closer in. And they’re segregated, well, because the neighborhoods are segregated. As a country, we’re still not used to a social interaction across race. It’s not a common thing for us.”

The Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation offers a path to overcome this segregation and work toward transformative change and bring about racial healing, Mr. Stewart said. The descendants approached the Jesuits “with open hearts and extended hands,” he said.

“Our goal is to work together and invest in the future; it’s not about fighting anymore. We’ve been fighting for 400 years, and we hope this foundation will give us a way forward,” Mr. Stewart said. “If we believe in God, then we owe it to him to take action. And we can’t continue to go to church and claim to be God’s children if we think we’re better than others of God’s children.”

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