Joseph Stewart, a descendant and the foundation’s acting president, said the descendants approached the Jesuits with a vision for atonement that would benefit their future offspring more than the current generation. The Georgetown Memory Project, a nonprofit organization, has identified roughly 10,000 descendants, about 5,000 of whom are living.
“We were looking for an approach that would engage in a positive way a partnership between all men of good will on changing the future, since we can’t change the past,” Stewart said.
Institutions are increasingly being forced to evaluate their participation in slavery and its legacy, which has snaked its way through U.S. history via segregation and institutional racism. As nationwide calls for reparations grow louder, the Jesuits’ foundation is framing its structure as an alternative to cash-based payments that instead invests in the future.
That mission is part of a broader effort by segments of the Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole to examine their involvement in slavery and implement forms of reparations.
In 2018, the Catholic sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart announced scholarship funding for Black students in Louisiana, where they once enslaved people. Seminaries in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as several Episcopal dioceses, have established reparations funds. Other Protestant denominations have urged their congregations to take similar steps.
The Jesuits’ foundation, first reported by the New York Times, is rooted in the events of 1838, when Jesuits in Maryland sold 272 enslaved people to Louisiana plantation owners to pay off Georgetown University’s debt. While the Catholic university’s connection to slavery had long been known, the Jesuits learned the names of the descendants from that sale in 2016, which facilitated the relationship between the order and the descendants.
The GU272 Descendants Association, which advocates for the descendants’ interests, asked the Jesuits for $1 billion as atonement — a figure that its members felt would have a transformative impact on racism in the United States. The Jesuits intend to raise the first $100 million from their institutions in three to five years.
In addition to funding scholarships and stipends for education, the foundation also plans to support community-based programs working to dismantle slavery’s legacy and help older descendants finance health care or other needs.
The Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, called the project “a bold undertaking.”
“But in light of the pervasive racism in the United States,” he said, “we firmly believe that until we reconcile with our history of slaveholding, racism will continue to endure.”
In addition to the Jesuits and the descendants, other institutions that once enslaved people will have seats on the foundation’s 13-member board. Stewart said he hopes the foundation will give those groups a pathway to engaging in their own reconciliation.
Georgetown, which will occupy one of those board seats, has contributed $1 million in funding. That capital will supplement $400,000 per year that the university promised in 2019 for community-based projects to benefit the enslaved people’s descendants. The university said it intends to release the first grants in that project this year.
Shannen Dee Williams, a history professor at Villanova University who has written extensively about the church’s role in slavery, applauded the Jesuits for their attempt to make amends. She called on them and other religious orders to keep acknowledging their history and partnering with the descendants to advocate for racial justice.
The Catholic Church “will never be able to repay fully what is owed for the millions of Black lives stolen and destroyed by its own practices of slavery and segregation,” Williams said in a statement. “Nor should the Church ever cease to reckon with and seek forgiveness for this shameful history.”
Stewart emphasized that he wants the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation to be judged on its ability to ameliorate racial division, rather than how fast it meets its $1 billion goal. The project is a “unique opportunity to accelerate change,” he said.
“I just believe that there are so many people in this country that are worn out on our conflict and our discussion, on our shame, on our denial,” Stewart said. “And we haven’t had an answer, just had a lot of debate. I am hopeful and prayerful that this will give people something to act on.”