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Through a Glass Darkly: Georgetown, Jesuits and Beyond the Legacy of Slavery

By Onita Estes-Hicks | with thanks to

NewBlackMan (in Exile)

In a deeply moving ceremony held on the Georgetown campus, in Washington DC, in 2017, over 100 descendants of the 272 enslaved persons the Jesuits sold to Louisiana in 1838 joined Georgetown University administrators, students and Jesuit priesthood members, also known as the Society, as the university sought forgiveness for engaging in the slave trade, now recognized as “America’s original sin.”  In this historic “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope,” Jesuits asked forgiveness “for the participation of our predecessors in the national tragedy of slavery, for the failure of moral imagination and conviction to call into question the perpetuated evil, and for the privilege and benefit accrued from their complicity.” A ripe example of “privilege and benefit” from the Jesuits complicity in slavery, Georgetown, speaking through its president, John J. DeGioia, acknowledged it owed its continued existence to  proceeds from the sale, and promised to continue the groundbreaking work it had instituted in 2015 following discovery that the infamous sale had rescued Georgetown University from bankruptcy. 

Executing recommendations from a student-faculty task force, Georgetown has renamed two buildings, formerly dedicated to the two Jesuits who had negotiated the sale; instituted an African-American Studies Program; conferred “legacy” status on descendants giving them preferential admissions to the university. Indeed, four descendants are enrolled there this semester.  Both the Provincial of the Maryland Province, from which the enslaved had been taken in a surprise raid, and the president of the Jesuit Conference in the United States and Canada, rendered heartfelt and moving speeches. Yet as the consolation of the liturgy fades into the background, descendants still await concrete action from the Society of Jesus to match the grand strides made at Georgetown. What then can be done?   

For this descendant, a cradle Catholic from New Orleans, America’s most Catholic City, the “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope,” helped ease the pain and disappointment that came with the shocking revelation the Catholic Church that helped African-American sustain dignity in the old apartheid South was also involved in the slavery that sent her ancestors to Louisiana.  If the Jesuits wish to move forward in its stated quest for reconciliation, they can play a leading role in the racial crisis we face today as toxic forces strive to return to the oppressive racial conditions of the past.  What can be done involves the church, the schools, and the community —all areas of Jesuit expertise.

The Society of Jesus can expand its confessed need for atonement, acknowledging the society’s role in slavery in Jesuit parishes by asking congregants to join in penitential prayer. This dissemination of a penitential prayer can follow the example set by the archdiocese of New Orleans. In recognition of the power of prayer and its obligation to alleviate racism, the archdiocese of New Orleans created a Family Prayer, with focus on violence and racism. The prayer is said at weekly Mass throughout the diocese.  A designated Jesuit prayer against racism could join the company of exalted prayers already in the Jesuit prayer book.

World-famous educators, Jesuits operate schools that rank among the best in the nation. Based on six core values, Jesuit education stresses moral and ethical issues, the pursuit of justice, integration of the human personality, caring for the individual person, striving for excellence and forming students to be agents of change. Guided by key Jesuit principles that include doing more to achieve excellence and acting “for the greater glory of God,” 28 colleges and universities and 68 Jesuit high schools in this country should teach slavery, including the society’s ownership and trading of slaves, acknowledging the benefit that incurred from their complicity in slavery that funded not only Georgetown but other universities and Jesuit missions as well. Following Georgetown’s lead, the Jesuit order could extend admissions and also financial assistance to Georgetown’s 272 descendants attending Jesuit institutions.  

Jesuits see faith as service and believe firmly in the promotion of justice, holding reconciliation of people as a requirement for reconciliation with God.  Some descendants attribute their alienation from Catholicism to the Jesuits. I am haunted by the vision of an 83-year-old descendant, now living in a trailer in the backwoods of Maryland, with few of the conveniences of modern life. In a heartbreaking interview, resounding with bitterness, he declared he wanted nothing to do with the Jesuits, noting they could have brought significant relief to his family at a time that mattered.  “But they’re so phony.”

What if the Jesuits, through affiliated groups such as the Ignatian Solidarity Network, did outreach to descendants?  As exponents of “faith doing justice,” of believers in the “reconciliation of people” could they save souls?  Ease bitterness? Co-labor with descendants to reach Catholics who have left the church because of its own role in oppression? Could a social-justice alliance between descendants and Jesuit-affiliated groups generate reconciliation and restoration?

To be sure, the Society of Jesus, prodded by Georgetown, has acknowledged its role in slavery; however, both Catholic social teaching with its insistence on repairing what has been broken and the current crisis in Catholicism, require moving from acknowledgment to action. Behind the shadow of Georgetown, the Society of Jesus and the descendants of the enslaved now see one another “through a glass, darkly.”  The Jesuits have the power to initiate actions to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s promise that we shall one day see each other “face to face.”


Onita Estes-Hicks, Ph.D., is an Encore Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project who retired as Distinguished Teaching Professor and chair of the English Department at the State University of New York. Dr.Estes-Hicks is  and New Orleans-reared black Catholic, who has been involved in and monitoring progress toward the harm Jesuits have admitted causing by using 272 slaved blacks as the capital to fund the building and development of Georgetown University. Dr. Estes-Hicks is a descendant of the original 272, and offers steps the priesthood can take to model their stated values as she believes more progress toward repair is possible.

Through a Glass Darkly: Georgetown University, Jesuits and Beyond the Legacy of Slavery

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