[Race/Related is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]
Ronda Thompson received the amazing news in a text from her sister. The Jesuits, the eminent order of Catholic priests who had enslaved his ancestors, had sworn to raise $ 100 million to atone for participation in the slave trade in the United States.
Ms. Thompson read the attached article, first with astonishment, then with dismay. The money would flow into a new foundation. But about half of the foundation’s annual budget would go to racial reconciliation projects, not descendants. And the deal was made in a series of private meetings with three downline leaders. No one had contacted her or her sister, Chanda Norton, or the descendants they knew for their contribution.
“They wronged our ancestors,” said Ms. Thompson, whose ancestors were enslaved by the Jesuits in Maryland. “It is as if the descendants are also wronged.”
Last month, the Jesuit Conference of Priests announced plans to raise funds to benefit the descendants of slaves the order once possessed and to promote racial reconciliation projects. The move, made in partnership with three descendant leaders, represents the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest effort to be forgiven for buying, selling and enslaving black people, Church officials and historians have said. .
But the news was met with mixed emotions from descendants across the country.
Some descendants, including Ms Thompson and Ms Norton, have staged petitions calling on Rome to reopen negotiations, a request the Jesuits in Rome have so far seemed reluctant to consider. Others have held meetings over conference calls and video calls, dotting downline leaders with questions in recent briefings.
Kevin Porter, an archivist whose ancestors were also enslaved by the Jesuits of Maryland, initially hailed the plan as “an unprecedented step towards redressing the injustice of slavery.” But he’s increasingly concerned about putting so much money aside for racial healing initiatives at the expense of other needs.
“I wish there were more programs for mental health, financial literacy and education, things that could empower African Americans,” said Porter, who attended a recent briefing organized by downline leaders.
A simmering concern is whether the leaders – Joseph M. Stewart, Cheryllyn Branche, and Earl Williams Sr. – adequately reflected the voices and needs of the wider community in their negotiations with the Jesuits.
The three leaders said their organization, the GU272 Descendants Association, represented “a majority” of descendants in a memorandum of understanding that they and the Jesuits signed in 2019. At the time, around 490 people had signed the group’s statement, but fewer than 50 had become members, according to Karran Royal, the association’s former chief executive and founder of the group.
About 5,000 living descendants of people sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to keep Georgetown University afloat have been identified by genealogists at the Georgetown Memory Project, a nonprofit group. The group estimates that around 10,000 descendants of other people enslaved by the Jesuits are alive today.
Mr Stewart said the wording of the memorandum was intended to reflect the hope that the organization would become a home for most descendants, not the actual members of the group.
“We could have been clearer about our aspirations to represent all descendants, living and deceased,” said Mr. Stewart, Acting Chairman of the newly established Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. “We are always open and eager to work with anyone who wishes to be a part of what has been created.”
Mr Stewart said he and other leaders shared the foundation’s goals, including its goal of supporting racial reconciliation projects, with descendants over the years, while acknowledging that specific details of the plan do not had only become public last month.
But Ms Thompson said the Jesuits had an obligation to ensure they negotiated with leaders representing a wide range of descendants and to ensure that those descendants were consulted.
“You can’t say you atone and reconcile and don’t do it with 100% effort,” Ms. Thompson said. “The Society of Jesus should have ensured that most of the descendants were included. Instead, they struck a half-baked deal with representatives who never represented the majority of descendants.
The Jesuits relied on slave labor and the sale of slaves for more than a century to support the clergy and to help finance the construction and day-to-day operations of churches and schools, including Georgetown, the first Catholic institution higher education in the country.
Descendants began pushing for negotiations with the Jesuits after learning from a series of articles in the New York Times in 2016 that their ancestors had been sold to help keep Georgetown afloat.
In addition to supporting racial reconciliation projects, about a quarter of the new foundation’s annual budget will support educational opportunities for descendants in the form of scholarships and grants, Jesuit and descendant leaders said. A smaller portion of the budget will meet the emergency needs of elderly and infirm descendants.
A spokesperson for the Jesuits in Rome declined to comment on specific concerns raised by descendants, saying Reverend Arturo Sosa, the superior general of the order, remains confident in the Jesuit leadership in the United States to handle the issue of slavery. and reconciliation.
The Rev. Timothy P. Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, declined to directly address concerns about whether the top down leaders had distorted the extent of their support. Instead, he hailed the partnership with the descendants as collaborative and the association GU272 as “open and inclusive of all descendants of Jesuit slavery”.
Maxine Crump, whose ancestors were sold in 1838, also praised the plan.
“It was supposed to be a small group process,” she said of the negotiations. “It is important to have gone this far, so fast.”
Mr Stewart said he was not surprised by the range of reactions. He urged the descendants to join the GU272 association so that they can voice their opinions and apply for grants once the foundation is up and running. (The $ 15 per year membership fee will be waived for the needy, Ms. Branche said.)
“There will always be differences of opinion; we respect that, ”said Mr. Stewart. “But whenever a different opinion arises, we cannot, as a legitimate organization, we cannot change our goals and objectives.
“We will continue to reach out to those who want to enter,” he said. “Do you want your voice to be heard?” To be involved. Pass it through the appropriate channels. You can make an impact, but there is a process to make it happen. “
But Ms Royal, the association’s former director, said she and others would continue to pressure the Jesuits to reopen the process. “There are so many voices left out,” said Ms. Royal, whose husband’s ancestors were enslaved by the Jesuits. “Jesuits owe it to the descending community to hear various voices.”