The Jesuits’ plan to compensate their slaves’ descendants gets reparation wrong

Limited atonement
Limited atonement
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Slaves are the reason Georgetown University, the Jesuit-run institution founded in Washington in 1789, still stands.

In 1838, Georgetown College—as the university was then known—was struggling under significant debt, alongside other properties owned by the Jesuits. In order to save it, the Jesuits arranged the sale of 272 slaves, including children and even infants, among the hundreds owned by the Catholic clerical order. The sale yielded about $115,000 at the time—equal to about $3 million today—a portion of which went to the university. Some was spent on the construction of a building named after one of the sale’s organizers.

In March of this year, nearly two centuries after the sale, the Jesuits of the US announced a $100 million program, part of its “truth and reconciliation” effort, to benefit the descendants of slaves.

The fund, described as “a first-of-its-kind partnership among the Descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of the enslavers,” is one of the most sizable efforts by any institutions to atone for slavery.

The sum will be raised by the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, an organization established by the GU272 Descendant Association, which represents some of the descendants of slaves the Jesuits sold in 1838, and representatives of the US Jesuits. Members of other organizations involved in race relations are on the foundation’s board.

Details are still being defined, but the broad plan is to allocate about half the fund to race reconciliation projects, a quarter to grants and scholarships to support education for descendants, and a small portion to supporting descendants facing health emergencies. Some money will also be available for ancestry research. The money will be managed through a trust, of which JPMorgan Chase will be a co-trustee and advisor.

The plan was announced as the national conversation about reparations gains momentum. Following last year’s Black Live Matters protest, many institutions and government bodies have begun considering making payments for their responsibility in slavery and the centuries of systemic racism. In March, a suburb of Chicago agreed to pay reparations to the Black residents who were subject to housing discrimination between 1919 and 1969. In April, the US House of Representatives agreed to form a commission to research reparations, passing a bill first introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers in 1989.

The Georgetown program has been labeled as an example of how reparations might work,  a template for institutions wanting to address their direct responsibility in slavery and its legacy.  However, many descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves think it falls short, and leaves open important questions about the purpose and process of making reparations. In fact, some experts fear despite its good intentions, the program might cause unintended harm, creating a flawed precedent that other organizations might follow.

Not a full representation of descendants

Kenneth Royal, who descends from slaves that were part of the sale, says that while GU272 represents some of the descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves, it can hardly speak for the majority of them. Only 50 of the thousands of descendants currently identified are full members of the organization. “It would have been better if they had talked to more of the descendants, to get an idea of what we all wanted,” he says.

His wife, Karran, was on the GU272 board at its founding but left it in February 2020, is concerned too about what she perceives as a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. Alongside five former board members, she wrote a letter to express concern over the way the agreement was reached, and the lack of involvement of the broader descendant community.

A spokesperson for the foundation told Quartz in an email that its leadership sought the input of hundreds of descendants over the years, and expressed an intent to continue engaging with the descendant community. No one from the foundation agreed to speak on the record.

Another issue raised with the foundation is that the three descendants who led the negotiations only represent four of the more than 50 surnames used by families of descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves (surnames are used since families were broken up and slaves were given new names). All of them are Catholic, too, while the broader descendant community has more religious diversity.

“The Jesuits should be talking to people, specifically those who are not Catholic, just so they are making an effort to hear the diverse voices,” says Karran Royal.

A limited scope

Although the plan might appear sizable with its $100 million pledge, many descendants say it is limited. For one, the actual financial commitment from the Jesuits isn’t that big, says Negest Rucker, a descendant of Jesuit-owned slaves who is critical of the plan.

Rucker’s ancestor, a woman named Louisa Mahoney, was among the slaves to be sold in 1838, but she escaped and hid in a swamp for three days until the boat carrying the sold slaves left. Mahoney remained enslaved under the Jesuits till emancipation.

“[T]hey are going to fundraise a lot of this money, which means they’re not actually paying out of their own pocket […] so it serves as an opportunity for institutions that are mostly led by white people to contribute to this fund, which means it’s a tax deduction,” she says.

One of the principles behind requiring individual institutions paying the descendants of slaves is the transfer of wealth from those who benefitted from the slave trade to the descendants of its victims. But in this case, the Jesuits are more of an intermediary for others to repay on their behalf.

They’re not actually sacrificing anything. So I don’t see that as repair,” says Rucker.

Kirsten Mullen and William Darity, leading experts on reparations and the authors of From Here to Equality, think the very idea behind the Jesuit’s fund—as well as the other racial equity programs targeting small communities—is somewhat fraught.

“One of the problems with the Jesuit program is the Jesuits focusing on ‘our enslaved people’, so there is still this mindset that ‘we owned these people and we own the solution as well’,” says Mullen. Piecemeal initiatives, she says, tend to ignore the broad impact of each slave-owning institution. In the case of the Jesuits, for instance, the fact that they were a religious entity made them models, giving slave ownership moral absolution, and helping it propagate.

Slavery, and the abuses that followed, existed as part of a climate Jesuits and others continued to perpetuate, and to isolate just the most direct victims minimizes the systemic extent of the issue. “When we’re talking about reparations, we are talking about a national initiative that is looking to make restitutions to a large number of people, not a narrow group of folks,” says Mullen.

Darity says the focus should be first on a national reparation program that achieves a meaningful closing of the wealth gap between Blacks and whites, estimated to be $11 trillion. Prioritizing independent, small initiatives risks giving the impression that they are all that can be done. Nor is it possible to identify all the abuses toward the Black community, and address them individually, he said.

Who benefits from the Jesuit program?

The way the money will be spent, too, is meeting criticism. “One of the things that we don’t like is them giving 50% of the money to reconciliation. We feel that those monies need to go to help descendants,” says Kenneth Royal.

Reconciliation shouldn’t be considered a way to repay descendants, they say, and many of them consider it offensive to try and claim so. “It should not be the burden of Black people to fix race relations or to fix racism. Our ancestors did not create racism. They did not create white supremacy,” says Rucker.

“If Jesuits wanted to reconcile, they wouldn’t tap these funds to do it. Reconciliation is needed, but is needed within white communities, it is not a responsibility of Black communities to foot the bill,” says Anne Price, the president of the Insight Center, an Oakland, California-based organization focused on building economic inclusion and racial equity.

The foundation believes reconciliation projects forge a more sustainable path toward healing, and have more impact than individual payments, a spokesperson told Quartz in an email.

Prince acknowledges the program stems from good intentions, and it is a step in the right direction. Yet, she notes, the emphasis on education funding might perpetuate dangerous narratives about how wealth is accumulated, pushing forward a myth about bootstrapping that says having degrees should be enough for Black communities to overcome the systemic gaps they face. “We know that just because Black folks might have a college degree, it doesn’t mean they make anything close to the wealth level that white families have,” says Price.

Further, scholarships and grants going to descendants for educational purposes might end up benefitting Jesuit institutions, including Georgetown. Money allocated to ancestry research could also potentially be claimed for projects led by the same institutions that benefited from the sale of slaves two centuries ago.

At the same time, no cash is being given directly to descendants, to help them buy property, for instance, or otherwise make up for the wealth gap.

Even the bank through which the program is being administered presents problems: In 1931, Chase acquired New Orlean’s Citizens Bank, which held the slaves sold by the Jesuits as collateral until 1865. JPMorgan merged with Chase in 2000.

“They [the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation] have not done a good job of even trying to separate themselves from other institutions that have a history of participating in the practice [of slavery],” says Rucker. “There are many Black-owned financial institutions that could have been used in order to support this, and there seems to be absolutely no effort done to make sure that they are not lining the pockets of those institutions again.”