The Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation (SHMR) Project holds itself to ethical standards as we work in partnership with descendants and descendant communities and engage with the history of Jesuit slaveholding. Rather than replicate the same injustices that undergirded race-based chattel slavery, we aim to contribute to an interpretation of history that prioritizes the voices and needs of descendants and descendant communities. SHMR is committed to respecting the voices of people who have been historically marginalized and their descendants as we work to address both the central role slavery played in the early development of Jesuit institutions and the lasting impact of slavery on American society.
Our best practices are ever evolving, and we will adapt them as we continue to discern how best to commit to our mission in conversation with descendants. These ethical standards inform both our approach to research and our present-day work with various communities to address the contemporary legacies of Jesuit slaveholding.
Our research is motivated by a desire to uncover a more truthful history of enslavement to the Society of Jesus and tell the stories of people held in slavery. We aim to share, to the fullest extent possible, the lives of the enslaved people whose forced labor was critical to the establishment and expansion of Jesuit educational institutions and missionary efforts. Such a perspective is essential for our mission to connect with descendants and empower them to tell their stories. Therefore, in order to tell a more complete history of enslavement to the Jesuits, we began by researching the lives of enslaved people held in bondage to the Jesuits. This ongoing research has enabled us to do genealogy, trace family lineages, and begin connecting with living descendants, who are increasingly involved in crafting historical narratives about their ancestors. Together, descendants, descendant communities, Jesuits, and Jesuit institutions can act in partnership to address the prejudice and structural racism that endure from slavery throughout the United States.
- Constructing historical narratives about the lives of enslaved people held in bondage by the Jesuits in the United States.
- Tracing family lineages and identifying living descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuits so that
- we can make historical records accessible to descendant communities;
- descendants are involved in crafting and interpreting historical narratives about their ancestors and the experience of enslavement to the Society of Jesus; and
- descendants work together with Jesuits to respond to the persistent vestiges of Jesuit slaveholding.
- Telling the full history of Jesuit slaveholding and promoting the widest possible access of relevant primary materials.
Enslaved people played a substantial role in the establishment and growth of Jesuit parishes, missions to settlers and indigenous people, and educational institutions, and Jesuit institutions across the country benefited from their forced labor. Records of these institutions and what they document about enslaved people often moved around as institutions opened and closed. Therefore, primary source material about enslaved people is spread across many different archives and repositories.
The SHMR Project conducts both historical research about the lives of the people enslaved to the Jesuits and genealogical research to reconstruct family units and trace lineages. When conducting research, we adhere to the following standards.
- Sources. We examine records in physical archives and online repositories that are publicly available. We will never attempt to subvert any mandatory access restrictions (such as public statute, donor contract, business/institutional/personal privacy) or access private accounts or information. We will never attempt to obtain criminal records, arrest records, or court records for living individuals. If we encounter such information, we will neither share nor archive it.
- Genealogy. We conduct genealogical research for the purpose of connecting with descendants in accordance with the priorities named in Research Purposes. We identify and cite all sources and ensure that genealogical connections are made only after a preponderance of evidence is found.
Access, Transparency, and Privacy
Because records are often scattered, and distance and archives hours can make them difficult to access, we aim to communicate our research transparently and make records about enslaved people, their earliest descendants, and Jesuit slaveholding as accessible as possible. At the same time, we are committed to respecting the privacy of present-day descendants and descendant communities. Therefore, we adhere to the following standards in order to raise public awareness about Jesuit slaveholding without perpetuating historically exploitative practices against descendant communities.
- Access. By compiling primary sources on the lives of people held in bondage by the Jesuits, we can promote and provide the widest possible accessibility of these materials. We are working toward developing a web platform which will serve as a repository for information on Jesuit slaveholding for use by descendants, researchers, and scholars. Because it will take time to develop this web platform, we are working to share as much historical information as we are able on our website. Individuals may also contact us to obtain more information.
- Transparency. Being transparent about primary documents and research resources promotes truth-telling and accountability both in our work and in the communities we serve. In addition, as we work to increase public knowledge about people held in slavery by the Jesuits, we will acknowledge the contributions of everyone involved in researching and communicating this history.
- Privacy. In order to raise awareness and enable people to determine if they are descendants, we wish to share as much information as possible while also respecting and protecting the privacy of living individuals. In reviewing different standards for cutoffs for personal information, we have determined the most appropriate policy is to keep records private about all living descendants and the generation that preceded them. This cutoff is subject to change based on descendants’ preferences.
Connecting with Descendants
The SHMR Project facilitates communication between descendant communities, Jesuits, and Jesuit institutions to discern what a transformative process of truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing looks like today. Guided by descendants’ visions for a way forward, we believe that decisions made as part of the reconciliation process should be made by and with descendants and descendant communities, not for them. However, we do not expect all descendants will wish to engage with us, nor do we want to anticipate what their solutions may entail.
We also share about our efforts through our website, social media, publications, conferences, media outlets, meetings with community stakeholders, and other platforms, so that descendants with knowledge of their family history may contact us if they wish. As we identify descendants through genealogical research, we also reach out to contact them.
We outline below our commitments to transparent communication, to respecting privacy, and to equitable collaboration with descendant communities.
Methods of Notification
If we do not have an established connection or relationship with a descendant family, we will reach out by letter as advised by representatives of the descendant community on our advisory committee. The letter provides information about why we believe the person is a descendant; invites them to connect with us if they would like more information about their ancestors or would like to participate in leading the Jesuits in developing an institutional response; and provides our contact information. The contact information provided in the letter will always be the same as is on our website.
If we have located a phone number for a descendant, we will follow up to the letter once with a phone call, and if we do not hear back, we will cease attempting to contact them. We will call two to three weeks after mailing the letter, in order to allow time for the recipient to review the information and decide whether they want to be in touch. If we cannot locate an address for a descendant to send a letter, we may reach out privately by email, phone, Ancestry.com, or some other means if possible.
Collaborating with Descendants
Led by the descendants of those most affected by slavery and its legacies, the SHMR Project endeavors to work in partnership with descendant communities to repair the harms done by slavery. In order to establish equitable relationships and maintain accountability to descendant communities, we outline our commitments and responsibilities:
- Meetings and conversations with descendants are treated as confidential unless we have written or verbal permission from descendants to share their content with others. Descendants can change their decision at any time.
- We maintain timely and transparent communication with descendants who wish for it. Related, we work to ensure that Jesuits and their institutions listen and are responsive to recommendations made by descendants.
- We consult with and invite contributions from descendants, and privilege their voices, in the telling of their ancestors’ narratives. We credit contributions to the historical narratives about the lives of those enslaved to the Jesuits.
- As our efforts continue, descendant communities will be represented at decision-making levels within the SHMR Project, including its advisory bodies and core staff.
- We are committed to inclusivity and anti-racism and will reflect these values in our collaboration with descendants, staffing, public presence, research, and community partnerships. We recognize that this approach requires building and sustaining relationships with descendants and descendant communities, the composition and perspectives of which are neither fixed nor homogenous. We also know that we will make mistakes in this work. We will be transparent about and learn from these mistakes, and we will apologize when we have harmed or neglected relationships.
- We approach this work conscientiously and engage in ongoing, transparent, and thorough self- and organizational evaluation of how we are meeting the commitments outlined above. We listen to and acknowledge concerns from our staff and our community partners, so that we can continue to act to improve upon collaboration with descendant communities.
In creating these guidelines, we were inspired by “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites,” a rubric of best practices established by National Summit on Teaching Slavery, convened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and James Madison’s Montpelier in February 2018. Where applicable, we will evaluate our organizational practices according to this rubric.
Updated: August 2020