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Jesuits and Georgetown announce $27 million for descendants’ foundation that honors legacy of enslaved ancestors through scholarships and work for racial healing

After announcing a commitment of $27 million in new contributions from the Jesuits and Georgetown University to the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, that entity’s leader praised the commitment of the religious order and university to providing support for descendants of ancestors enslaved by the Jesuits and to promoting racial healing in the United States.

On Sept. 13, the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus announced a matching $2 million per year contribution over the next five years with Georgetown University to benefit the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, with those contributions totaling $20 million. Earlier this year, the Jesuits contributed another $7 million based on the value of province land near Washington, D.C., where some of the descendants’ ancestors were enslaved.

In 2019, the GU272 Descendants Association partnered with the Society of Jesus to form the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. That association is named for the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by Jesuit priests in 1838, most of whom were forced to leave the religious order’s Maryland farms and were transported by boat to plantation owners in Louisiana. Proceeds of the sale fortified the future of Georgetown College which had been struggling financially and enabled the Jesuits to expand their educational institutions in the United States, but the enslaved who were sold in that sale toiled in grueling conditions harvesting sugarcane and cotton in Louisiana and forever lost connections with family members left behind in Maryland.

Along with $15 million that the Jesuits contributed when the foundation was created in 2019, the foundation’s Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Trust now has a commitment of $42 million for its three core focus areas: supporting the educational aspirations of descendants from early childhood education through post-secondary education; investing in truth, racial healing and reconciliation in communities and organizations throughout the United States; and supporting elderly and infirm descendants.

In an interview, Monique Trusclair Maddox, a fourth- and fifth-generation descendant who serves as the CEO of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation and as the chair of its Board of Directors, noted that the Jesuits and Georgetown have committed $42 million toward the foundation’s vision of an eventual $1 billion to support its work. In a recent column for America magazine, Jesuit Father Brian Paulson, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, noted that “$42 million in commitments are the foundation of our pledge to do our best to seek $100 million over five years from Jesuit networks – our alumni, parishioners and benefactors.”

“Our partnership is really strong,” Maddox said. “…We see that the Jesuits and Georgetown are committed to what we’re doing, and they know that it’s really needed to support racial healing, truth-telling and transformation in this country, as well as supporting descendants’ needs, and those are the descendants of the enslaved by the Jesuits, particularly those in the former Maryland province that also supported keeping Georgetown College at the time afloat, and we know some of those contributions didn’t just go to Georgetown, they went to other areas in the east province. So we’re heartened that those institutions are actually putting their money behind the commitment.”

Maddox said the latest count of descendants whose ancestors were enslaved by the Jesuits in the United States from colonial times through eventual emancipation now totals more than 13,000.

She noted that in July, the foundation began putting its first program into action, to provide post-secondary educational scholarships to descendants, working with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which is going to distribute scholarships for some descendants attending colleges and universities beginning in the fall of 2024.

In his column for America magazine, Father Paulson noted that next year, the foundation will award $400,000 in educational grants to descendants, and another $400,000 will be awarded to community-based racial healing initiatives. “This is just the beginning,” Father Paulson wrote.

The Jesuit priest added that the partnership with descendants “has blossomed into an unprecedented movement toward truth and reconciliation with the racist sins of our past – one that offers a pathway for healing in the United States.”

In a statement announcing the Jesuits’ and Georgetown’s new commitment to the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, the order noted that “Jesuits USA East remains deeply devoted to our partnership with the descendant community and to working together for racial reconciliation and healing in this country. We are dedicated to the long-term vision of healing the scars of slavery by pursuing hope and advancing our tireless goal for social justice.”

That point was echoed in a statement from John DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, when the new commitment to the descendants’ foundation was announced. “The work of reconciliation – grounded in a deep reckoning with the pain and injustice of slavery and its legacies – is an expression of hope,” DeGioia said, adding that it was an honor to contribute to the foundation’s work. “The difficult truths of our past guide us in the urgent work of seeking and supporting reconciliation in our present and future.”

Also reacting to the commitment from the Jesuits and Georgetown to the descendants’ foundation was Joe Stewart, a fifth generation descendant and the chair emeritus and co-founder of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, who said, “Continuing commitments such as these get us closer to reconciling this nation’s original sin and to healing the disease of racism in our nation.”

Maddox said another key part of the foundation’s mission is to our mission is “really to take care of the elderly and infirm descendants that remain here with us today. We want to set aside some funds just to support their needs as well, whether that’s through health care or housing or whatever their emergency support needs are. We are in the process of also formulating partnerships to be able to utilize institutions like senior services, Council on Aging, those types of already established groups, to be able to distribute those funds in support of the needs of those elderly descendants.”

The foundation’s CEO was among descendants who recently made an emotional homecoming to Southern Maryland over the Labor Day weekend, to visit the sites of the Jesuit plantations where their enslaved ancestors once lived and worked. Some branches of the enslaved families had been transported to Louisiana after the 1838 sale, and other branches of the families remained in Maryland. Generations later, the descendants of those enslaved ancestors were reunited with their relatives at the 

Reclamation Project’s Southern Maryland GU272 – Jesuit Enslaved Descendant Gathering that drew hundreds of people who, in addition to touring the plantations and historic churches in that region, also gathered at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s City for presentations from scholars and testimonies from fellow descendants. The four days of activities closed with a Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes, Maryland.

Julie Hawkins Ennis, a co-chair for the descendants’ gathering and a native of Southern Maryland, said it was “a reunion of families after many years of separation. It was bringing many cousins back home to us on our ancestral lands.”

The 1838 sale of their enslaved ancestors “affected so many, in so many different ways,” Ennis said, adding that the announced commitment by the Jesuits and Georgetown University to the descendants’ foundation “is one way they are recognizing this very damaging and hurtful flaw in their history.”

When asked about how the descendants’ foundation is honoring the legacy of those ancestors, Maddox said, “They toiled on those lands, and for them to know that we are here doing something in their honor, in their honor to be able to tell our children (about them) and to tell our grandchildren, and to show them that their lives were not in vain. Their work is still being realized today. It may not be realized through the farming that they did… Their lives are now leaving educational opportunities and healing from this past that really hurts a lot of people… It’s heartening to know that we are here fighting for them and giving a voice where they didn’t have a voice, I think (that) is really what we’re about.”

The work of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation is about honoring those enslaved ancestors, Maddox said, adding, “Our journey is really just beginning to make sure that their lives were not in vain.”