Five years ago, Joe Stewart says he didn’t know his ancestors’ origins.
Then he read a story in The New York Times that said in 1838, a group of Jesuits saved Georgetown University from financial collapse by selling 272 enslaved men, women and children to plantation owners in Louisiana.
Stewart realized that he had grown up in that same area — just a few generations later.
His discovery eventually led to an unprecedented, landmark agreement between a group of Jesuits and the largest known association of descendants of enslaved ancestors.
“You can imagine how I felt when I found out that the church I attended was the church who enslaved my ancestors.”
“[F]or the first time in our lives, we knew where we came from, those of us who were two and three generations down from the original sale,” said Stewart, who is one of more than 1,000 descendants of an enslaved man named Isaac Hawkins. “You can imagine how I felt when I found out that the church I attended was the church who enslaved my ancestors.”
He and nine other descendants gathered and ultimately decided not to seek compensation for themselves. Instead, they chose to focus on improving the lives of future descendants.
The Jesuits announced on March 16 that they are pledging to donate $100 million to a newly created Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation. They also plan to raise $1 billion in scholarships for future descendants and fund a process of truth and reconciliation in the US.
“Now we will be in a phase of trying to build a legacy that changes the narrative of this horrible sin to a very positive legacy that is about uplifting lives."
“Now, we will be in a phase of trying to build a legacy that changes the narrative of this horrible sin to a very positive legacy that is about uplifting lives,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and chief executive officer of the Kellogg Foundation, and a trustee of the new foundation.
'Setting a precedent'
Back in 2016, Stewart and other descendants wrote a petition to the Vatican asking for support to start a foundation focused on the lives of future descendants.
The leader of the Jesuit society responded, welcoming a dialogue and acknowledging that Jesuits had sinned against God by betraying the descendants’ ancestors. That letter copied Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the US.
Stewart called Kesicki and invited him to his home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
“No one had done this before. This was — to my knowledge — the first engagement of the descendants of the enslaved with the descendants of the enslavers. And it was these descendant leaders, Joe Stewart, in particular, who had a vision."
“I flew to his home, and as soon as I walked in the door, he and his wife stood there with a container of holy water and asked me to bless their home,” Kesicki said. “No one had done this before. This was — to my knowledge — the first engagement of the descendants of the enslaved with the descendants of the enslavers. And it was these descendant leaders, Joe Stewart, in particular, who had a vision. And instead of saying, ‘Look at what you did to my ancestors,’ said, “understand what you did to my ancestors.” But now, we want to partner with you in something new.”
Tabron later helped lead the Jesuits and descendants through a process of mediated healing circles.
“We brought two stories — both the Jesuits' story and the story of the descendants, together — and we built a shared story.”
The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation doesn't consider the work they are doing as reparations because they are not making direct payments to individuals. But as many institutions examine their ties to slavery, this initiative is possibly the most significant to date — certainly by the Catholic Church.
“They are, you know, setting a precedent, and that I think is quite significant,” said Susie Pak, an associate history professor at the Catholic St. John's University in New York who is examining its ties to slavery. “What’s going to come out of it, I’m not really sure.”
'This is a real sea change'
There has been criticism since the announcement. Some say more descendants should have been included in the decision-making. Others worry the foundation is underestimating the value of the wealth accrued through the enslavement of African Americans. Still, others believe that the initiative should confront slavery’s ongoing legacy of white privilege.
“This is a real sea change. ... But as [white people], we have to do more strategically and more energetically than we have in the past.”
“This is a real sea change,” said Jim Bretzke, a theology professor at the Jesuit John Carroll University in Ohio. “But as [white people], we have to do more strategically and more energetically than we have in the past.”
Kesicki and Stewart don’t pretend that the negotiation process was easy. Kesicki said there’s been plenty of anger and tears. The process taught him that faith is stronger than any institution, he said.
“There's been a lot of ‘come to Jesus’ moments, as we tend to call them, that have just been brutal, raw and painful. I don't deny that,” Kesicki said. “But that's rooted in, ‘How are we going to get to the future?’”
That was an approach that came out of respect for their ancestors, said Stewart, who’s now acting president of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.
“There were times that we got mad as hell and we were not afraid to express that. The difference is, you don't wallow in that. You look for the positive thing that can help you move forward toward a bigger goal,” he said. “And our goal is to heal.”