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Georgetown Reconciliation Fund will award $400,000 annually to benefit descendants of Jesuit slaves

A top-ranked Catholic university has announced plans to award grants annually to atone for its participation in slavery.

Promotion of a 2019 referendum at Georgetown University that called for a student fee to fund reconciliation payments to descendants of those enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits. (Amber Gillette/The Hoya)

WASHINGTON — Applications are open for Georgetown University’s new Reconciliation Fund, an annual $400,000 initiative meant to support programs benefiting descendants of those once enslaved by Jesuits in Maryland.

The school announced the news with a statement released in late October—almost exactly two years after the school’s administration first told the Georgetown University Student Association that it would take action on a reconciliation fund concerning the school’s involvement in antebellum human trafficking.

“The university benefitted from the enslavement of people of African descent through plantations owned by the Maryland Jesuits through the mid-19th century and from the practices of slavery and forced labor that took place on and around Georgetown’s campus,” the university said last month.

“This project is one way the university is reckoning with the legacies of slavery that have shaped our past and to respond by advancing justice and equity in our present,” added Georgetown president John DeGioia.

University leaders had previously rejected a successful 2019 student referendum calling for a similar initiative funded by a $27.20 student fee added to tuition. The number was meant to call attention to the 272 enslaved African Americans sold by Georgetown in 1838, a group that has become the center of ongoing discussions of reparative justice at the elite Catholic institution.

Though the school, through its representatives, has said that the Reconciliation Fund will be supported by alumni (rather than student) support, the fund’s website directs prospective donors to a page with no such restrictions.

The fund also expands the focus beyond the “GU272”—and beyond direct financial compensation to descendants—but Georgetown says the referendum nevertheless played a part in the new plans.

“The Reconciliation Fund, which was inspired by an undergraduate student referendum in 2019, has begun accepting applications for projects that aim to benefit communities of Descendants, many of whom live in and around Maringouin, Louisiana, where their ancestors were sold and forcibly moved to in 1838,” the announcement notes.

“The projects could include health and legal clinics, environmental justice projects, after-school and pre-college programs and local history and memorialization projects.”

The school says more than 500 alumni have already donated to the new fund, whose recipients will be recommended by a collaborative team involving students and a Descendant Advisory Committee (made up of those whose ancestors were enslaved by Maryland Jesuits).

As with other recent efforts by the Jesuits to atone for their slaveholding past—including a struggling Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, run in part by leaders of the GU272 Descendants Association—critics of the new fund say the world’s largest religious order is once again avoiding full accountability and receptive dialogue.

“The GU272 Referendum was created in light of Georgetown’s refusal to engage meaningfully with student and descendant initiatives for years prior,” student and descendant Julia Thomas told Georgetown Voice.

“The formation of a charitable fund in lieu of implementing the student referendum is an insufficient response to both the student body and descendant communities.”

Georgetown Ph.D. student Zac Colon, vice chair of the fund’s Student Awards Committee, says students are essential to the new fund’s success, which can lead to healing for the descendants of the enslaved.

“My goal is that the fund and projects we award become a model for other institutions to follow to address the enduring legacy of slavery in America,” he said.

“This is not a short-term mission. The more students involved, the greater chance that this fund will succeed and fulfill the goal to impact Descendant communities for years to come.”

Applications for the Reconciliation Fund are due by Friday, November 25, and are open to organizations and individuals. More information is available on a dedicated webpage within the Georgetown website. Applications will also be available again in January 2023.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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