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Jesuit slavery descendants foundation announces $27M in new donations

Criticism has emerged, however, from some descendants of the Maryland Jesuits' slaveholding—and an infamous 1838 sale to save Georgetown University.

The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation (DTRF), one of several active initiatives concerning reparations for the Jesuits’ involvement in American slavery, has announced $27 million in new donations, moving the organization toward its lofty $100M five-year goal announced in 2021.

The contributions, which will support the foundation’s social programs in descendant communities, include sums from Georgetown University, where 272 African Americans were infamously sold in 1838 to save the school, and from provinces of the Jesuits—the largest Catholic religious order in the world.

"These contributions from Georgetown University and the Jesuits are a clear indication of the role Jesuits and other institutions of higher education can play in supporting our mission to heal the wounds of racism in the United States, as well as a call to action for all of the Catholic Church to take meaningful steps to address the harm done through centuries of slaveholding," said Monique Trusclair Maddox, who serves as board chair and CEO of the DTRF.

The news closely follows the recent large-scale gathering of GU272 descendants and allies in Maryland this August, funded by the Georgetown Reconciliation Fund, another initiative founded in the wake of public revelations concerning the Jesuits’ involvement in the slave trade.

Though the Reconciliation Fund and the DTRF are legally unrelated, they help to form a nexus for the disparate descendant communities of Louisiana—where the GU272 were sold in the 19th century—and other parts of the country, including Southern Maryland, where many African Americans remained in Jesuit bondage until emancipation.

The foundation, announced with much fanfare two years ago, includes among its stakeholders the global Jesuit order, which initially contributed $15M to the fund; Georgetown University, which provided a $1M implementation grant; and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, of which two affiliates sit on the foundation's board.

Outside donations were controversially put forward as the primary method of funding for the DTRF at its onset—rather than the Jesuit or university coffers—but a later New York Times report revealed that such income amounted to less than $200,000 as of August 2022.

Now, a year later, the irrevocable trust attached to the foundation has reached a total of $42M, nearly halfway to its five-year goal of $100M and a small fraction of the way to its ultimate goal of $1 billion.

“The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation has put forth an extraordinary vision to uplift Descendant communities, support the educational aspirations of Descendants, and promote racial healing in our nation," said Georgetown president Dr. John J. DeGioia, speaking of the foundation’s core focus areas for funding distribution.

Despite the continued funding, the foundation has been shrouded in controversy since its inception, both due to its indirect methods—no direct cash payments will be made to descendants for Jesuit slavery—and its limited interaction with the larger descendants community.

The GU272 Descendants Association, founded in 2017 to locate and unite the descendants community, claims to represent the more than 10,000 descendants across the United States, but in reality counts only a small fraction of them as official members. Nevertheless, the DTRF works exclusively with the association’s leadership as the descendants’ sole representatives.

“How do they always find money to give to them but have us fighting over scrap?” said Jessica Tilson, a descendant living in Louisiana. She is part of a nonprofit team that received a small grant this year from the Georgetown Reconciliation Fund, but has for years advocated for more transparency on why the Jesuits (and the media) continue to focus on “the same five” descendants.

“Either we get in line or we get nothing at all.”

Tilson, who claims that the Jesuits originally promised elderly Louisiana descendants financial compensation and continued visits, reneged on those promises in view of the DTRF initiative to fund social programs. As such, Tilson says the current foundation board should be disbanded so they can “start all over.”

Karran Harper Royal, a former executive director of the GU272 Descendants Association and the wife of a descendant, recently co-produced a short film on the surviving community and has for years helped locate and gather them for virtual reunions. She also expressed concerns that the new foundation donations are a superficial treatment for an open wound.

“The Jesuits have chosen to hear the concerns of a small group of descendants and reward them with millions of dollars while ignoring other descendants who have different ideas about how these reconciliation funds should be spent,” she told BCM.

“It’s just plain wrong and there is no way the Jesuits or the Catholic Church can consider this amends, atonement, or reconciliation. I really feel like this is all about the appearance of reconciliation. They don’t want to do the real work of atonement.”

Joe Stewart, the chair emeritus of the DTRF, reportedly told descendants years ago that it would be “four generations” before they would see the results of the new partnerships with the Jesuits and Georgetown. He has since cut off communication with Tilson and others who questioned the foundation deal and its inner workings—which to date have not been made public, instead being filtered through the Midwest Province of the Jesuits.

For their part, the Jesuits have posited the new donations—part of which amount to the value of the plantation land where the descendants’ ancestors were enslaved—as a genuine move toward healing.

"As a Catholic community, it is imperative that we don't turn away from our sinful history of slaveholding and instead look inward at how we can right past wrongs with justice, healing and compassion," said Fr Tim Kesicki, SJ, the past president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and current chair of the DTRF Trust. 

"I am thrilled to see other Catholic and Jesuit institutions step up by investing in the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation's mission to foster racial healing and uplift current and future Descendants.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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