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