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By Pledging $100 Million For Slave Descendants, Jesuits Are ‘Owning’ Their History

From left to right, (top row) John Carr, Cheryllyn Branche, Father Tim Kesicki. (Bottom row) Kimberly Mazyck, Joseph M. Stewart, Joseph A. Ferrara (Photo: courtesy Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life/screenshot)

NEW YORK — For two descendants of slaves sold by the Jesuits in the 19th century, George Floyd’s death at the hands of disgraced Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last May served as a reminder of what their ancestors endured, and how far the country still has to go.

A jury found Chauvin guilty of second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on April 20. He was the officer videoed with his left knee on Floyd’s head and neck area for over nine minutes last May, which led to nationwide protests.

[Related: Jesuits Pledge $100 Million to Benefit Descendants of Enslaved People]

“People of color, particularly African Americans in this country, have had the collective knee on the necks of our people since we were sold here, brought here,” said Cheryllyn Branche, president of the GU272 Descendants Association.

“Understanding that truth in terms of what happened with George Floyd became a vision that many of us will never forget and felt like even more of a betrayal because we’re supposed to be better. This is America, and we are not.”

Branche was one of the descendants of slaves sold by the Jesuits that spoke at a Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life discussion this past Thursday, where panelists took a deep look at what the Catholic church and country need to do to take strides on issues of race.

The Jesuits sold 272 men, women, and children in 1838, and some of the proceeds went to Georgetown University. Now, the GU272 Descendants Association that Branche leads — named in honor of the more than 272-enslaved people — works to support the descendants of people enslaved by the Jesuits.

A building on Georgetown University’s campus, renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall, right, is seen April 4, 2017. Previously known as Mulledy Hall and later Freedom Hall, it was renamed in 2017 for one of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by Georgetown’s Jesuit community to plantation owners in Louisiana in 1838. Hawkins was the first enslaved person listed in the sale documents. (Photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Joseph M. Stewart also spoke at the discussion. He’s a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, who, in 2017, had a Georgetown building named in his honor.

“I wish that building wasn’t named Isaac Hawkins. Had he not been a slave, it would not have been. A monument does not change history. We have to act to change history,” Stewart said. “We got to do something about the future. We got to respect and appreciate the past, but our focus has to be the future.”

Stewart is the acting president of the Descendants of Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, a partnership of the GU272 Descendants Association and the Jesuit order. The foundation, which focuses on “racial healing and transformation of hearts and minds in America,” will be the holding place for $100 million in funds the Jesuits pledged to raise to benefit the descendants and promote reconciliation initiatives nationwide.

The importance of action was a mainstay in Stewart’s comments throughout the discussion. That’s the way he believes is best to create change, and it’s also the approach he’s taken at the helm of the foundation in working with Georgetown and the Jesuits.

“We can stand around and argue for another 200 years or we can act and that’s all we have done. We have acted and we’ve tried to take a different pathway from the confrontation and arguing to see if we can get someplace,” Stewart said. “And at this point, we have. We have started to move someplace we’ve never been and act. Act by being involved. Act by understanding what the truth is. Act by being committed.”

Back when the $100 million pledge was announced, Father Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said that racism will endure in America unless people recognize the “truth of the past and how it affects us all today.”

At Thursday’s discussion, he again stated the importance of acknowledging the truth of the past. This time, as it relates to Floyd’s death.

“If we want to seriously address what happened on the streets of Minneapolis last summer, we really need to own this history,” Father Kesicki said. “This narrative from 1845 and see how there is a direct connection between our history as a church in the United States with the continuing sin and sickness of racism on the streets today and until we reconcile with that, racism will endure.”

Stewart and Branche also called for more priests to address issues of race from the pulpit.

“I’m waiting until this day to go to Mass on Sunday morning and hear one priest take issue with racism and the conditions that racism is causing in the one human family. I don’t attack the priests for that. I say, let’s prove we’re Catholic if we’re Catholic,” Stewart said.

Branche acknowledged that she believes many priests, bishops, and parishes “are afraid of going against the grain because it affects the collection plate,” when it comes to speaking on issues of race from the pulpit.

On that front Kim Mazyck, senior manager for engagement and educational outreach in the Social Policy department at Catholic Charities USA, said church leaders have a “clear responsibility” to do so.

“You can’t be pro-life if you won’t speak out on racism. You can’t abandon one and claim to be the other,” she said.

When John Carr, the co-director of Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, considers issues of race in the country, he’s clear that “ignorance is no excuse. Indifference is dangerous. And inaction is not an option.”