Acknowledging A History That Included Slavery

A recent article in the New York Times, “Georgetown Faces Its Role in the Slave Trade and the Task of Making Amends” (April 16, 2016), thoughtfully drew attention to the disheartening history of slaveholding by Jesuits in Maryland. The article highlighted the actions of two Jesuits in particular, Thomas Mulledy S.J. and William McSherry S.J., both presidents of Georgetown University. Mulledy and McSherry were prominent churchmen and academic leaders in the early nineteenth century. They also played a central role in a notorious sale of enslaved blacks in 1838, whose involuntary labor had provided financial support for Jesuit works in this period, as did the revenues from their sale, including to Georgetown University. Jesuit historians have been at the forefront of bringing this episode to light over the last forty years. Much of their research contributed to the New York Times article, and study continues at Georgetown University under the auspices of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.

Today more than ever, Jesuits and their collaborators in ministry react with dismay and regret to this chapter in the order’s history. It highlights a lack of enlightenment in the men and institutions we would otherwise hope to admire and look to for inspiration. We continually call attention to and condemn this appalling aspect of early American culture and the way in which Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular participated in it.

In the last century, mindful of this dark time in history and in concert with many other dimensions of American society at large, the Society of Jesus in the U.S. has worked tirelessly to contribute to racial and ethnic reconciliation. This began with individuals and the Jesuit provinces progressively coming to terms with racial injustice in American society and within the Catholic church as it took form in the beginning of the twentieth century. It continues today as the Society of Jesus, in the Maryland province and across the U.S., commits itself with its colleagues and affiliated institutions to provide education and support to minority communities. In recent decades, we have provided scholarship assistance for African-American students to study in our schools.  Our Cristo Rey high schools and Nativity middle schools have offered a Jesuit education to thousands of African-American youth longing for the opportunity to excel on their merits rather than be held back by circumstance.  We have also established and supported Jesuit parishes in predominantly African-American communities, providing human and financial resources to meet the spiritual and economic needs of those parish communities.

Jesuits of the Maryland Province, and around the globe, are dedicated to practicing "the faith that does justice." Events of the last year clearly indicate that the work of reconciliation between the races in our country still has far to go. Conscious of the participation of Jesuits in the origins of our country’s racial problems, we commit ourselves to contributing to their solution. We desire reconciliation and oneness in the face of the errors we find in our history. We remain inspired by the Jesuits and colleagues throughout the Province and the Society of Jesus involved in advocacy and outreach to the poor and marginalized in our country and the world, and we dedicate ourselves to continuously testing for our own generation’s moral blindness.

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