I enjoy watching the PBS program Finding Your Roots with host Henry Louis Gates. Each week the show traces the genealogy of famous living people: actors, politicians, artists, rock stars, journalists, athletes, etc. Each show is filled with surprises as the guests learn new things about their ancestry.


One week the show featured the Black actress, S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on Law & Order. (She appeared in 395 episodes, more than anyone else associated with the series.) Finding Your Roots traced her genealogy back to her great-great-great-great grandfather, a slave named Isaac Hawkins who was once owned by the Jesuit Priests of Georgetown University.


S Epatha Merkerson of Law & Order fame and a direct descendant of a slave once owned by the Jesuits.

When Merkerson heard this news, she was understandably shocked. She asked in disbelief, “You mean Catholic priests owned slaves?!” The truth is, some did. So did a few orders of religious sisters. So did other “reputable institutions” like seminaries, dioceses, and other universities. (This historic fact of slave ownership by so-called “moral and upright people,” should give us pause to ask ourselves, “What injustices in our own day are we blind to? What injustices are we participating in and profiting from?)


In this blog I will focus on the Georgetown Jesuits and the amazing steps they have taken to atone for their past sin of slavery. Before the Civil war, the Jesuits at Georgetown University owned slaves who worked in the vast tobacco fields the Jesuits owned in Maryland. The profit from the sale of the tobacco supported the Jesuit community and their mission of education, most notably Georgetown University. But when the value of tobacco plummeted, Georgetown was in serious financial trouble. So, in 1838 in order to save their university and support their community, the Jesuits sold 272 of their slaves to plantation owners in Louisiana. The Jesuits received $115,000 for the slaves, the equivalent of over 2.7 million dollars today.


A letter from a slave, Thomas Brown, writing to the Jesuits in 1863 in an attempt to purchase his freedom and the freedom of his wife Molly. (Georgetown Archives)

Father Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said, “Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back.” He added, “The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation.” The Jesuits, in partnership with the descendants of their slaves, have established the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.


According to The New York Times (3-15-’21), the foundation has already raised $100 million dollars. Some of this money will be distributed as grants to organizations engaged in racial integration projects. Another part of the funds will support educational opportunities for the descendants of those slaves owned by the Jesuits. And the third segment will be given for emergency needs for the descendants who are old or infirm.

Some of the descendants of the 272 slaves took advantage of the invitation to visit Georgetown University for dialogue, tours, and various programs.

Over 5,000 descendants of the slaves have been identified by genealogists. The acting president of the foundation is Joseph Stewart, a retired corporate executive and descendant of Isaac Hawkins, mentioned earlier. He said, “Descendants and Jesuits have come together in the spirit of truth, racial healing, and reconciliation… 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.”


Georgetown’s atonement for the sin of slavery goes beyond the Foundation itself. At Georgetown, two buildings, formerly named after two Jesuits involved in the sale of the slaves, have been renamed after two of the slaves: Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall. (She was a pioneer in education and one of the first Black nuns in the U.S.) The university established Slavery Archives, created a department of African-American Affairs, and reviewed their hiring practices for new faculty. In addition, new courses have been added to the curriculum including one on Georgetown’s history and another on the connection between slavery and religion. The students at Georgetown have been actively involved in these efforts. In fact, a couple of years ago two-thirds of the student body voted to establish a student fee that would be contributed to Georgetown’s “reparation funds.”

Other organizations, in addition to the Jesuits, have set up reparation funds: the Religious of the Sacred Heart (who once owned 150 slaves in Louisiana and Mississippi), Princeton University, the Virginia Theological Seminary, and several Episcopal dioceses. Even JPMorgan Chase is making reparation for the part their predecessor bank, Citizens Bank of New Orleans, played in the sale of the Jesuit slaves. They are providing planning and advice as well as other services to the Foundation.


Writing to the descendants of the Jesuit slaves, Father Arturo Sosa, SJ, the Superior General of the Jesuits, said this: “Jesuit slaveholding in the United States, and in particular the sale of 272 enslaved persons from the Jesuits in southern Maryland to purchasers in Louisiana, was both a sin and a betrayal because the Society (the Jesuits) robbed your ancestors of their human dignity.”

Let us pray:

Loving God, Give us the courage to face the truth of our past history… Give us the humility to acknowledge our failures, our shortcomings, and our complicity with injustice… Give us the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation… Give us the love to see all others as our brothers and sisters in the same human family… May the power of your grace lead us to the joining of our hands, minds, and hearts in true unity. Amen.


(To take a virtual walking tour of sites related to the history of slavery on or near the Georgetown campus, go to: slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu. Once there, click on “The Price of Georgetown: A Walking Tour.”)


PS #1: I am leading a Zoom retreat sponsored by the Heartland Center for Spirituality in Great Bend, Kansas from May 24 – 29. The theme of the retreat is “Living with Hope in an Imperfect and Beautiful World.” I will give two conferences each day at 10:00 (CST) and 3:00(CST). For further details check their website: heartlandspirituality.org. It’s listed under preached retreats. Or call: 620-792-1232. I’d LOVE to meet some of you during this retreat!


PS #2: About my blog… We are still having a few glitches with our new website—and with our blogs. Some of you received my blog for Ash Wednesday last week! I have no idea how or why that post was sent out. But two important features have been reinstated on my blog: the “search box” (in the right upper corner) and the place where you can subscribe to my blog—also on the right side of this page. Let me know if you have any questions about my “new” blog. Thank you!


For reflection:

Did anything in this reflection touch you?

One historian said this partnership puts tremendous pressure on other institutions in the U.S. that share this history of slaveholding, to do something similar. Do you believe others will follow with similar steps toward reconciliation? Why or why not?

Is there any way you are participating in or profiting from an injustice? (For example: sweatshops, child labor, unjust hiring laws, etc.)


If there is one song that captures the Civil Rights movement it is “We Shall Overcome.” Here is Genie Deez’s 9 minute history of that song that I think you will find very interesting—especially the song’s link to a beloved 18th Century Catholic hymn.

https://youtu.be/WXDU3n4HTTY

You can leave comment to my blog below! I’m eager to hear from you again!

22 Comments

  1. Roseann on April 26, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Don’t trust in your own righteousness; practice moderation in food and talk; and don’t worry about things done in the past. St. Anthony Abbott. It seems the more this subject is brooched, the more riots, hate and destruction it brings.

    • Keith Murphy on April 27, 2021 at 8:55 pm

      Knowing history is imperative but the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Reparations has become a primer for Self loathing. It has become a guilt trip and a byproduct of concentrating on what was once the accepted societal norms. African’s sold their own into slavery. Egyptians, Romans, Persian Empire owned slaves. Muslims (Barbary Pirates) owned White slaves. Jews were once slaves. Present day China owns slaves and Muslim women are still chattel. Muslims, Christian’s and Protestants all killed at one time in the name of being righteous. Only in America have we, who have corrected past errors of thought and action, being told we should offer reparations based on race. A Catholic education was the best but, disciplined. Today the nun’s who taught me would be considered child abusers. Values of today can not be placed to judge those of ages gone bye

  2. Melannie Svoboda SND on April 26, 2021 at 11:21 am

    Thank you for your response, Roseann. I would add: sometimes grave injustices in the past are still having unjust repercussions in the present. And sometimes things look worse before they work themselves into something better. Thanks for reading my blog! Sr. Melannie

  3. Ida on April 26, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Very interesting and hopeful post today! Thank you!

  4. Lance Letterio on April 26, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Why don’t you include the ability to share your Monday blogs on Facebook anymore? For weeks now, I’ve had to cut & paste the web address in order to do so. Your used to have a Facebook “F” to share this blog.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 26, 2021 at 12:04 pm

      Dear Lance, I’ll look into this. Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

      • Chris Keil on April 26, 2021 at 9:01 pm

        I agree with Lance’s question, I would love to post some of these on Facebook.

  5. Mary James on April 26, 2021 at 11:44 am

    So glad to hear of someone else who watches Finding Your Roots.
    Your blog is so current and appropriate at tbis time. Always good
    to question my biases. My prayer is that other institutions will
    follow Georgetown’s example.

  6. Judy Schwartz on April 26, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    I’m curious – how is it that the time of the time stamp on these messages is way before this current time (9:13 AM EDT)?

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 26, 2021 at 2:05 pm

      Hi, Judy,
      I post my blog at 1:00 am (EDT) on Monday. But not everyone receives it at that time. Some receive it a little later. I don’t know why. But some of my readers who receive it early are also early risers, so their comments can be marked very early. Other readers are in other time zones from all over the world. I hope that sheds some light on your question. Thanks for responding! Sr. Melannie PS: I wrote this about 10:00 am… I think there’s something wrong with my blog’s clock!

  7. Feli Sebastian on April 26, 2021 at 1:26 pm

    I’ve been your regular reader, Sr. Melanie but I have not sent comments until now. I’m glad to hear and read articles of reparation and reconciliation done by the Jesuits in your blog. There are still a lot of injustices done to other countries and minorities. My mind went back to the abuse and atrocities done to the native Pilipinos by the Spanish Friars. It is not just looting our land but also taking advantage of our women. And they did it in the name of Christianity. We paid for it by being “christianized”!
    Two books by Jose Rizal, our national hero exposed the friars and the church abuses: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
    I pray we truly live the Gospel and Jesus’ teachings.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 26, 2021 at 2:08 pm

      Dear Feli, Thank you for responding! I hope this won’t be your last comment… And thank you for your example from the Philippines. The Church has done immeasurable good for people throughout her history. At the same time, we must acknowledge the Church’s failings. Sr. Melannie

      • Linda Gray on April 26, 2021 at 4:33 pm

        Great..thanks for adding another crack in our already fractured windshield of a country. As one of our illustrious politicians recently said, “we’re irredeemable”.
        I suggest the Vatican, and every Catholic Church in the world sell everything it owns and divide the proceeds among The Black, indigenous, Asian, women, etc., etc., would it be enough? Nope..because politicians don’t want it to end.

  8. Colleen Johnston on April 26, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    I appreciate your content always and I can imagine all the work being done electronically is exhausting, but I must say the light typeface showing here and throughout your message is extremely difficult for me to read. When you ‘bold’ something, that is perfect. Is there something that be done to make all the copy darker? Please and thank you.

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 26, 2021 at 3:40 pm

      I’ll check on this, Colleen. Thank you for your input! Sr. Melannie

      • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 30, 2021 at 3:27 pm

        Colleen, I made the type larger and bolder. Let me know if this helps! Sr. Melannie

  9. Cheryl Zellhoefer on April 26, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    Is there a way to research your old blogs by theme? For instance, I might want blogs relating to food, meals, Eucharist, friendship etc. I used to be able to find those.
    Thank you!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on April 29, 2021 at 5:57 pm

      Cheryl, To find topics I have written about on my blog, simply go to the upper right hand corner of this page to the search block. Type in a key word–such as prayer, Eucharist, love, St. Joseph–and click “search” or “enter.” Blogs on that topic will appear. Just scroll down and click “read more” to access the reflection(s) you want to read. Thanks for asking your questions! Sr. Melannie

  10. Ryan Roth Gallo on April 26, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    This is such a beautiful and timely post. Thank you for writing about this. I shared on my FB page.
    Reparations for Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves is a highly controversial issue. This blog is a beautiful example of how Reparations, when undertaken through a mindful process and with a true and open hearted desire to seek forgiveness for wrongdoing by one’s ancestors or, as in the case of the Jesuits and Georgetown University, as well as some other religious orders and universities, one’s predecessors, an begin the powerful and restorative work of healing and justice in the relationships among people who are hurting – whether the hurt feels like the trauma of abuse of one’s own people, or the burden of guilt for the actions of one’s ancestors or fellow group members. It is too easy and overly simplified to say “Why should I have to pay, my family never owned slaves?!” Or, “Lincoln freed the slaves and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act ended Jim Crow and gave Black Americans equal rights…” That is an understandable knee jerk emotional reaction that is defensive of the status quo and all it does it shut down the conversation. Why not keep an open mind? Why not at least consider the possibility that some form of Reparations, if done along with real and meaningful reconciliation could move us forward in our work toward healing the divide that is hurting all of us?

  11. Jean Canatsey on April 26, 2021 at 7:44 pm

    I found this blog to be enlightening. The phrase “No more auction block, O Lord” was profound. The problem seems almost insurmountable.🙏

  12. Sister Celeste Albers on April 27, 2021 at 1:47 am

    Melannie, I am excited to have my retreat this May with you. I think this will be one of the best I have ever had! Please know I am praying for you so that we can all enjoy this retreat together.
    Peace, dear one!

  13. Dominic Mattone on April 27, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    I have a Masters degree in American history and this is another example of history that was not taught, intentionally or not, along with Black Wall Street, lynching, Juneteenth, etc. Thank you for providing this critical knowledge and thank you, Georgetown, for the courage and responsibility shown in your actions.

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