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Addressing lingering effects of slavery calls for looking ahead more than back, Georgetown panelists say

Panelists in the April 29, 2021, Georgetown University dialogue on “Owning Slavery, Pursuing Justice, Seeking Reconciliation Lessons from Georgetown and the U.S. Jesuits” included (top row, left to right) John Carr of Georgetown University, Cheryllyn Branche of GU272 Descendants Association, and Father Timothy P. Kesicki, S.J., of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States; and (bottom row, left to right). Kim Mazyck of Catholic Charities USA; Joseph M. Stewart of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation; and Joseph A. Ferrara of Georgetown University. (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

The path being followed by Georgetown University and the Jesuits in reckoning with the religious order’s history of owning and selling enslaved people may hold lessons for the rest of the Catholic Church and American society, according to several panelists at an April 29 dialogue hosted by the university.

Panelist Joseph M. Stewart, the acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, is a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, whose name was at the top of the bill of sale for the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to plantations in Louisiana. Stewart was adamant that addressing the U.S. history of slavery and its continuing implications must focus on looking ahead more than on continuing to deconstruct the past.

He spoke in an online program hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life about “Owning Slavery, Pursuing Justice, Seeking Reconciliation.”

“We’re not going to change and mitigate the impact of slavery until we start dealing with the hearts of men instead of the intellectualizing and legal approach,” Stewart said. “You get your hands around one part of it and it pops out another. It’s popping out now in voter suppression and insurrection… We’ve got to change that because this democracy is crumbling under the pressure of racism and the mutating legacy of slavery. We’ve got to put it behind us. That’s the bottom line goal, through truth first, reconciliation and transformation.”

He gave Georgetown credit for its outreach to the descendants of the 272 enslaved people and for its ongoing research and lauded the Jesuits for their collaboration with those descendants in acknowledging the past and the continuing legacy of the nation’s history of slavery.

Joseph M. Stewart, the acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, was among the panelists in the April 29 online dialogue. (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Georgetown’s institutional efforts have included renaming campus buildings that previously honored people with significant roles in the sale of enslaved people. One of those renamed the former Mulledy Hall for Isaac Hawkins. That building had been named for Jesuit Father Thomas Mulledy, a former president of Georgetown College who as provincial superior of the Maryland province of the Jesuits brokered the deal to sell Hawkins and the other enslaved individuals.

Stewart said that while he appreciates the name change, he wished there had been no reason to name a building for his ancestor, if slavery had never been a fact of U.S. history. But, he said, renaming buildings and creating new monuments to enslaved people “are not the way to change society and rid ourselves of this evil that continues to haunt God’s people…. We’ve got to change it by dealing with the roots of slavery that continues to mutate -- in every way you look in this country -- because people are trying to hold onto the advantages and privileges” that date back to slavery and that continue to benefit non-Blacks. “Until we deal with those root parts of the truth we will have misguided efforts,” he said.

The Jesuits’ history of owning enslaved people was broadly acknowledged in 2015 as Georgetown University President John DeGioia established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. 

The working group’s efforts led to a formal apology from the Jesuits and the creation of the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, which was announced in March as a partnership formed by the Jesuits and the GU272 Association. The Jesuit order pledged to raise $100 million for the foundation’s work, which will support educational opportunities and scholarships from early childhood education to higher education for descendants of the 272 enslaved men, women and children. The foundation will also support community-based, grassroots and national programs that advance racial healing and transformation throughout the United States. Those enslaved people once sold by Maryland’s Jesuits to benefit Georgetown University now have an estimated 10,000 descendants.

Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, who has helped lead the religious order’s contemporary responses to slavery, noted that for hundreds of years the Jesuits have known the history of slave-owning. Detailed records were kept, it was discussed and taught to students, he said.

But until recently it was not considered through any lens other than that of the religious order, he said. Through the reconciliation group, the Jesuits “came face to face” with descendants of Jesuit slaveholding, he said. “Suddenly we didn’t know the whole story.”

After a lot of “raw truth-telling and tears, absorbing the pain and the shame of this history,” the working group focused on moving forward, Father Kesicki said. What the Jesuits heard was, “’Let’s not beat you up because of your past,’” he said. “’We will beat you up if you don’t commit to changing the future.’ It was that desire for the truth as God sees the truth that has brought us to this moment.”

Program moderator John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, noted that what the panelists were pointing toward would require different models of leadership, changed policies and priorities.

Kim Mazyck of Catholic Charities USA (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life) 

Kim Mazyck, the senior manager for engagement and educational outreach in the social policy department at Catholic Charities USA, echoed the call to move forward while living out the calls of Catholic social teaching. She pointed to the New Testament parable of the Good Shepherd for an example.

“We can focus on who beat up this man and dumped him by the side of the road, or we can do what the Good Samaritan did, (who) picks him up, takes care of him and moves forward,” Mazyck said. She said Georgetown is trying to do that with the reconciliation project, but also with a program for prisoners to help them move forward.

“In the story of the Good Samaritan, we never hear who beat this man up,” she said. “We only hear about the man who picked him up. We have to be those people,” in both the church and in government, she said.

Cheryllyn Branche (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Another of the descendants, Cheryllyn Branche, is president of the GU272 Descendants Association. She told of getting a phone call from someone who told her about her own heritage, that she was descended from a family that was sold by the Jesuits in 1838.

While she previously knew she was descended from people who were enslaved, Branche said she was given a litany of details that she’d never heard. “I get breathless when I even say it, because it’s the truth. I felt I had been given a truth that was never shared with me before.”

She said that was the beginning of a process for her to decide what to do with the information. “We all deal with truth very differently, what we process and what we decide to do as a result,” she said. In discussions with her pastor, she focused on his question “what are you going to do about it?” and has plunged into the work of the descendants’ association.

Joseph A. Ferrara (Screen grab/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Joseph A. Ferrara, vice president and chief of staff to Georgetown’s president, said a lesson from his involvement in the university’s efforts on slavery, memory and reconciliation is that “truth-telling, reconciliation, healing and transformation has to occur at a personal level, each of us understanding our common humanity.”   

“We’re dealing with massive historical legacy of pain, oppression, killings,” he said. Anyone who becomes immersed in that history comes out numb, Ferrara said, which makes it daunting to consider a way forward.

Stewart said taking action is essential. “We can stand around and argue for another 200 years or we can act,” he said. The efforts by the Jesuits and the foundation have started to get somewhere, he said, adding that Catholics and others are also being called to act by getting involved. “If you can say the Apostles Creed, you cannot be satisfied with what’s happening in God’s human family,” Stewart said. “If you can be satisfied with what’s happening, you’re lying to God.”