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March 15, 2021 — In a landmark undertaking in the pursuit of racial healing and justice, Descendants of ancestors enslaved and sold by the Jesuits and the Jesuits of the United States have announced a partnership to create the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.

Earl Williams Sr., Cheryllyn Branche, Father General Arturo Sosa, SJ, Joseph Stewart and Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ

The Foundation — formed by the GU272 Descendants Association and the Jesuits — is a first-of-its-kind partnership among the Descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of the enslavers. JPMorgan Chase is a supporter of this historic partnership.

Descendants Earl Williams Sr. and Cheryllyn Branche with Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ

“From our inception, the GU272 Descendants Association has chosen to identify and rebuild our ancestors’ families that were separated and often destroyed by the brutal institution of slavery and to create a sustainable mechanism for investing forward in uplifting Descendants for many generations to come,” said Cheryllyn Branche, President of the GU272 Descendants Association. “Through the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, we will restore honor and dignity to our ancestors by institutionalizing these goals for our children, our children’s children, and Descendants for centuries to come.”

The Foundation’s mission is to support the educational aspirations of Descendants for future generations and to play a prominent role in engaging, promoting and supporting programs and activities that highlight truth, accelerate racial healing and reconciliation, and advance racial justice and equality in America.

The Foundation’s mission, however, extends beyond reconciliation with the events of this single moment in history. The Foundation aims to develop a full understanding of, and reconciliation with, the numerous institutions of higher education and other entities that profited from slavery. When the members of the Foundation became aware of their history in 2016, they chose not to seek individual cash settlements but rather to seek a substantial and sustainable investment forward in uplifting the wellbeing of Descendants for many generations to come.

Joseph Stewart at Georgetown University

“For more than 400 years, our country has denied the persistent human destruction caused by slavery and the conscious and unconscious racism that divides our communities and nation,” said Joseph Stewart, Acting President of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation and one of more than 1,000 Descendants of Isaac Hawkins, an enslaved man who, along with many other enslaved men, women and children, was sold to save Georgetown University from financial ruin. “After 182 years, Descendants and Jesuits have come together in the spirit of truth, racial healing and reconciliation, uniquely positioning the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation to set an example and lead America through dismantling the remnants of slavery and mitigating the presence of racism. Our partnership will pursue and support the creation of a new and abiding reality of love and justice for all members of our one humanity.”

Members of the Descendant community gathered at the dedication of Isaac Hawkins Hall at Georgetown University, named in honor of one of the ancestors sold in the 1838 sale.
Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, publicly apologized to Descendants of slaves at Georgetown University.

The Foundation is rooted in the events of 1838, when 272 enslaved men, women and children were sold by the Jesuit owners of Georgetown University to plantation owners in Louisiana. “Our shameful history of Jesuit slaveholding in the United States has been taken off the dusty shelf, and it can never be put back,” said Fr. Tim Kesicki, SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. “Racism will endure in America if we continue to turn our heads away from the truth of the past and how it affects us all today. The lasting effects of slavery call each of us to do the work of truth and reconciliation. Without this joining of hearts and hands in true unity, the cycle of hatred and inequality in America will never end.”

Citizens Bank of New Orleans, later acquired by JPMorgan Chase, used the 272 enslaved humans as collateral. In support of its goals, the Foundation has set up a trust for which JPMorgan Chase will serve as a co-trustee and provide planning and advice as well as other services. “The institution of slavery and systemic racism are tragic parts of America’s history, and we have a responsibility to drive sustainable change for the people and communities who have been impacted by this bitter legacy,” said Brian Lamb, the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. “We are proud to support the Descendants and Jesuits as they pursue solutions through truth, racial healing and transformation to help dismantle the legacy of slavery and to build a more equitable society both now and for generations to come.”

Descendant Leaders, Jesuits and Georgetown Representative at the Ancestors graves, Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery.
Peter Hawkins, born in 1824 and pictured here in 1905, was the first child born into slavery at the Jesuits’ Saint Stanislaus Novitiate and Farm in Florissant, Missouri. In 1823, his parents were sold from the Jesuit plantation in White Marsh, Maryland.

This announcement comes after several years of a powerful dialogue process among Descendant leaders, Jesuit provincials and representatives from Georgetown. In May 2017, about a year after learning of their connection to this tragic and sinful past, Descendant leaders had petitioned Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, the Jesuit Superior General to respond. Fr. Kesicki had publicly apologized for Jesuit slaveholding at a Liturgy of Memory, Contrition and Hope at Georgetown University. Fr. Sosa responded to the Descendants’ letter by writing, “Jesuit slaveholding in the United States, and in particular the sale of 272 enslaved persons from the Jesuits in southern Maryland to purchasers in Louisiana, was both a sin and a betrayal because the Society robbed your ancestors of their human dignity.” Fr. Sosa then called the US provincials to dialogue with the Descendants under the structure of the Jesuit Conference. In the summer of 2018, soon after receiving the Superior General’s letter, Mr. Stewart called Fr. Kesicki and the two met in person at Mr. Stewart’s home in Michigan.

Frank Campbell, one of the enslaved people sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. The younger girl in the photograph has been identified as Frank Campbell’s granddaughter, Mary Jane. Source: Georgetown Slavery Archive

This first encounter, which has grown into a strong and binding relationship, opened the door to a frank, honest and constructive way to restore the human dignity which the Society had robbed from the Descendants’ ancestors. Within a year of their first meeting, they brought Descendant leaders, Jesuit provincials and representatives from Georgetown University into a formal dialogue process sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Kellogg Foundation is world-renowned for its commitment to Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. The restoration of human dignity would require a total commitment from all who entered the dialogue process.

In 2020, the Descendant Association leaders met with Fr. Sosa when he visited the United States. This historic meeting solidified this Descendant-Jesuit partnership for the future.

What emerged from this process is a life-long partnership and a shared commitment to transformation and conversion. The vision begins a new chapter today with the announcement of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation.