A Groundbreaking Approach to Reconciliation and Racial Justice

Read how there is racial healing happening within The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.

On Sunday, April 17, 2016, the New York Times ran a story on the top of the front page that changed Joseph Stewart’s life forever. 

The article by journalist Rachel Swarns was headlined, “Georgetown Confronts Its Role in Nation’s Slave Trade: What Does the University Owe Descendants of 272 Slaves?” It details the history of an 1838 sale of 272 enslaved men, women and children. What made the sale unique in its horror was that the selling enslavers were Jesuit priests, members of a Catholic religious order. 

Proceeds from the sale were used to support the Jesuit-sponsored Georgetown University, in the District of Columbia, which was facing financial challenges at the time. It is heartbreaking and infuriating to know that leaders of the Catholic Church, members of the clergy who vow to serve God by serving God’s children, bought and sold fellow human beings. (And it was a practice throughout much of the American Catholic church of the era.)

While the history of Jesuit slaveholding had been known for decades, not many modern-day  Descendants knew this chapter of their own families’ stories. Swarns’ piece plus new genealogical research brought the story to a wider audience — including thousands of Descendants of the human beings the Jesuits had sold. 

Mr. Stewart is one of these Descendants. He grew up in Maringouin, Louisiana, mere miles away from the plantation where his ancestors had arrived after the sale, and eventually went on to a long career with the Kellogg’s corporation. Mr. Stewart’s family was Catholic, but he hadn’t known why. He came to realize it was because the Jesuits had baptized those they had enslaved. It is hard to fathom today the level of institutionalized cognitive dissonance that would lead an order of priests to “care” for the souls they enslaved and would then sell as property. 

“You are really a bit taken back that the church that you’ve been a part of for all of these years was a church that enslaved your ancestors. There was a deep sense of hurt, pain, and disappointment,” Mr. Stewart told me during a podcast interview in 2021. “You also know this: You want to do something about the dignity that was taken away from your ancestors, that they were no longer here to stand for themselves, and you felt a deep obligation to stand for them.”

Just a few months after Mr. Stewart and other Descendants learned about their own history, about 10 or 12 of them gathered on a call for the first time. On the call was Ms. Cheryllyn Branche, a retired principal of a Catholic high school in New Orleans, who would go on to lead this emerging group they came to call the “GU 272 Descendants Association.” Like Mr. Stewart, she knew they had to do something. “When I first found out the truth, I knew that the old saying is ‘the truth will set you free,’” Ms. Branche told me. “This truth compels us to do something beyond ourselves, something for the greater good.” 

One of the first steps Ms. Branche, Mr. Stewart, and other Descendant leaders decided to take was to contact the Jesuits. In the spring of 2017, soon after the top Jesuit official in the United States, Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, had apologized for the sin of slaveholding on behalf of the Jesuits at a prayer service at Georgetown University, the Descendants wrote to Fr. Arturo Sosa, the Jesuit superior general in Rome, and requested him to appoint an official representative to engage Descendants in dialogue.

Fr. Sosa asked Fr. Kesicki and other Jesuit leaders from the various regions of the United States to connect with the Descendants. Fr. Kesicki remembers the powerful experience of meeting with Mr. Stewart and his wife Clara for the first time at their home in Michigan. He had brought a vial of holy water with him, and the first thing the Stewarts did was ask him to bless their home. “It was a very moving moment,” Fr. Kesicki says. “And we began the conversation.” 

Soon after, Descendant leaders, Jesuit leaders and representatives from Georgetown University asked the Kellogg Foundation to facilitate a dialogue process committed to truth, racial healing, and reconciliation. At the heart of the dialogue were some pressing questions: How might the Jesuits atone for this great sin? What is a way forward that honors the Descendants’ ancestors and promotes justice moving into the future? What resources were the Jesuits willing to pledge toward these goals? 

This small group met face-to-face multiple times starting in March 2018. Through the confidential dialogue, the Descendants were able to present their vision to the Jesuits and Georgetown. Ultimately, an agreement was reached: Descendants and the Jesuits would partner to start a groundbreaking foundation called the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation that would fund scholarships for Descendants; programs and activities directed at truth-seeking, racial healing, and transformation; and financial support to meet emergency needs of impoverished elderly or infirm Descendants. The Jesuits have committed to raising $100 million for the foundation and made an initial contribution of $15 million. It’s the first time Descendants of the enslaved and successors of the enslavers have collaborated in this sort of way.

 As an employee of the Jesuits who has watched the dialogue unfold — not as a participant, but as an attentive observer of what has been made public — there are three primary takeaways I have about what the pursuit of reconciliation in this case has required from all involved. 

The difficulty and weight of this task have called for a lot of time and vulnerability.

It took five years from the publication of the New York Times’ story to the launch of the foundation, and the work to fund it is ongoing. 

“Let’s not give anybody the impression that this was not hard,” Mr. Stewart says. “This was hard, but that’s how you develop trust. There were times when, I’ve got to tell you, it got a little tense. And you want to fight sometimes. But as Cheryllyn likes to say, ‘This is a distance race, a marathon. It is not a sprint.’ So we had to remind ourselves of that and to hang on to every little piece of progress we were able to make.” 

And progress came through openness with one another, sharing their pains and hopes.

“When you dialogue in a circle with nothing between you but air and opportunity, you begin to reveal parts of yourself that you may not have even realized were there,” Ms. Branche told me. “The weight in the room was so heavy — and not just because of the Descendants present, but because of the Jesuits present, recognizing they are facing people whose ancestors their predecessors enslaved. It still gives me goosebumps, because it took some time for us to understand not just how to speak in a language that we could all receive, but also to be understood.”

Progress in dialogue required the Jesuit participants to abandon defensiveness and embrace solidarity.

During the process, Fr. Kesicki had an insight that kept him coming back to the table despite the tension. “The truth of Jesuit slaveholding is tragic, it’s shameful, it’s sinful, and it’s something that any one of us would like to walk away from,” he says. “One of the most painful realizations is that perhaps, in my mind, I could walk away from it. But I knew Cheryllyn and Joe and the other Descendant leaders could never walk away from their history. They could never walk away from their ancestors. And I felt if I really want to partner, if I really want to open my heart, am I going to have the same vulnerability and the same commitment that is bound to them by God?”

If any wounds were going to be healed, it was essential for Jesuit leaders not to say, “This happened centuries ago, it’s not my fault.” Instead, they had to hear and feel the Descendants’ pain and let it break open their own hearts.

The pursuit of reconciliation is not linear.

In one respect, the story I’ve outlined has followed a linear path: Descendants learned their families’ histories, approached the Jesuits, and together they made it through a challenging reconciliation process and have come out on the other end. There is some truth to that progression, but it’s not the complete picture. Challenges remain, including the pace of fundraising. Some days and weeks are better than others.

“What we’ve created is something that’s never been created in this history of this country,” Mr. Stewart says. But he knows there is still a lot of work to be done: more fundraising, more programming, more progress in racial justice in this country where the opportunity gaps between white and Black can feel impossibly wide. New leaders and future generations will need to continue the work. “There aren’t any smooth roads ahead of us. We have to pave them as we go.” 

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