Georgetown and Descendants of Enslaved Black Catholics Progress in Racial Reconciliation

Descendants of Black Catholics sold by the Jesuits in 1838, and Georgetown University officials, are charting a new course for how to heal the enduring wounds caused in the U.S. by slavery and racism.

Georgetown University (L), Frank Campbell, one of the slaves sold in 1838, pictured c.1900 (R).
Georgetown University (L), Frank Campbell, one of the slaves sold in 1838, pictured c.1900 (R). (photo: AP/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University officials and representatives of descendants of 272 Black Catholics sold by the Jesuits in order to save the university from bankruptcy in 1838 shared the real progress they made toward healing the damage done to generations by Jesuit involvement in the slave trade. 

The two groups hoped the continued cooperation, and lessons learned from this ongoing process, could provide a model for healing in the U.S.

“To advantage some and disadvantage others is the history of the legacy of slavery,” Joseph Stewart, acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, said in an online dialogue hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. Stewart, a businessman and descendent of Isaac Hawkins, who was among those sold into slavery by the Jesuits’ in 1838, emphasized that what happened at that time affects U.S. society today.

“What we’re trying to do is finally address that,” he said at the April 28 event. 

In March, the GU272 Descendants Association and Georgetown University announced the creation of the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, with its own dedicated trust, that would fund community-based projects for racial healing, and provide scholarships for the educational aspirations of the GU272 descendants. The Jesuits have pledged to raise $100 million to seed what is planned to become a billion-dollar trust. The university has contributed $1 million toward the foundation, in addition to its own $400,000 annual fund to support the GU272 descendant community.

Stewart emphasized in the online dialogue that these steps have shown how society can move from talking about racism toward cooperative action that leads to real progress.

“You’re not going to change or mitigate the impact of slavery unless we start dealing with the hearts of men, instead of the intellectualizing and legal approach,” he said.

Five years ago, Georgetown admitted its existence involved a horrendous evil committed by the Society of Jesus in Maryland to save the university from bankruptcy in 1838: the sale to Louisiana slaveholders of 272 Black Catholics, whom they had baptized and to whom they taught the Catholic faith. The scandalous sale led to a huge international uproar in the Society of Jesus, but the controversy died with a lie that the 272 Black Catholics had died from fever in Louisiana and left no descendants, when the truth was these men and women survived, all the while holding onto their Catholic faith. 

The proceeds of that 1838 sale for $115,000 ($3.3 million today) led to Georgetown becoming the prestigious university it is today, with its $1.8 billion endowment and an annual undergraduate tuition of nearly $58,000. But it meant the GU272’s descendants, who number 10,000 today, would never have the opportunity to grow up in an economically vibrant Maryland, but in deeply impoverished parts of Louisiana. 

Georgetown University’s Memory Project found that in Maringouin, a deeply Catholic and African-American community where the median household income is $20,000, 900 of the 1,100 people who live there are direct descendants of the Catholic families sold by Georgetown. 

 

A Foundation for the Future

Since admitting this truth five years ago, Georgetown University and the GU 272 Descendants Association, a group representing descendants of those Black Catholics sold in 1838 by the Jesuits, have made strides in taking action to start repairing and healing the awful legacy of slavery, segregation and racism in the U.S. and its impact on Black Americans and the entire country today.

Joseph Ferrara, vice president and chief of staff to the president of Georgetown University, said Georgetown’s framework for action has been to acknowledge fully their history, publicly apologize, and then finally act permanently to seek to remedy the effects of racism in U.S. society. 

“This is not some initiative that we will declare over in a year or two,” he said. “This is a permanent part of the fabric of Georgetown, and that work will go on.”

Ferrara mentioned the university has been archiving records of that history, and memorializing on campus the Jesuits’ involvement in slavery at Georgetown University and the Black Catholics they had enslaved who built the university. The university also took down the names of the Jesuit architects of the sale from two university halls, and instead named them in memory of Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft, a free Black woman and religious sister known for her educational and charitable works in the Georgetown area. 

Ferrara said the university right now is focusing its primary efforts on the funds for the support of the GU272 descendent community, and working in concert with them. 

“The biggest and most important part of what Georgetown is doing is engagement with the descendent community,” Ferrara said. “That is what makes this work meaningful, important, and urgent.” 

Not all the GU272 descendants are on board with the plan for the new foundation. Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, reported some descendants, including former GU272 Descendants Association board members, have called for a renegotiation, saying the GU272 Descendants Association could not claim to speak on behalf of the 10,000 descendants. Others said racial reconciliation projects should give way to direct spending on the GU272 descendants who have suffered the effects of the 1838 sale over generations, as well as genealogical support. 

Descendants that dissented from the GU 272 Descendants Association agreement with the Jesuits organized a YouTube Live informational town hall as “Descendants of Jesuit Enslavement,” in which they set out their concerns and critiques, particularly on the ability of the GU 272 Descendants Association to negotiate an acceptable agreement on behalf of the descendants.

“They did not have the majority of descendants organized into the GU272 Descendants Association,” Karran Royal, a former executive director of the association and organizer of the alternative group, said during a question-and-answer session.

Cheryllyn Branche, president of the GU272 Descendants Association and a retired principal of St. Katharine Drexel Preparatory School, acknowledged the disagreement within the GU272 descendant community about the right course of action.

“We’ve come to a pass where there are people who are aligned [with the GU272 Descendent Association] and people who are not aligned,” she said, “but the truth is the most important aspect of all of this.”

Branche did say learning the truth of what happened to her ancestors was personally “stunning,” and the impact of the Jesuits’ betrayal hit her profoundly as she recognized the name of her maternal great-grandfather, Basil Ford. He was sold as an infant.

“I felt that I had been given a truth never shared with me before,” she said, “and that it was necessary to do something with the truth.”

 

Healing Slavery’s Legacy Today

All the participants noted the urgency of healing the lasting wounds of slavery, which are still felt in the U.S. They referred in particular to the “heartbreaking” murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which Branche said put a stamp on what she said was a “betrayal” of American justice and values.

“People of color, particularly African Americans in this country, we’ve had the collective knee on our necks since we were brought here,” she said. 

Stewart himself pointed out that in the generation of Black Americans growing up before him, “the neck hung from trees,” a reference to 20th-century lynching and anti-Black terrorism that sometimes took place under the eyes of law enforcement, underscoring the not-so-distant and deadly legacy of racism.

“We really need to own this history, this narrative, and see how there is a direct connection between our Church and the sin of racism on our streets today,” Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and a leader in Jesuit responses to slavery, said. 

He said Jesuit complicity in the scandal of slavery could be glimpsed in the Black abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass’ description of the slave-holding Christian church as “men stealers for ministers, women whippers for missionaries, and cradle plunderers for church goers” where “the man who wields the blood clotted cowskin throughout the week, climbs the pulpit on Sunday and claims to speak for the meek and lowly Jesus.”

“Until we reconcile with that,” Father Timothy said, “racism will endure.”

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