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Georgetown University and the Jesuits pledge $27 million to the descendants of enslaved people

Georgetown University and the Jesuits have pledged $27 million in donations to the descendants of hundreds of enslaved people sold to fund the University in the nineteenth century.

Healy Hall, at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC. (Folly Kouevi/The Hilltop)

The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, a nonprofit, announced that the gift comprises $10 million from Georgetown University and $17 million from the Jesuits. The Jesuit funding contains the $7 million estimated worth of a former Jesuit plantation and an additional $10 million.

The new gift increases the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Trust’s total funding to $42 million. The donation is a significant step in the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation’s goal of raising $100 million and eventually $1 billion. 

Monique Trusclair Maddox, a descendant who serves as the CEO of the foundation and chair of the board of directors, said in a statement, “These contributions from Georgetown University and the Jesuits are a clear indication of the role Jesuits and other institutions of higher education can play in supporting our mission to heal the wounds of racism in the United States, as well as a call to action for all of the Catholic Church to take meaningful steps to address the harm done through centuries of slaveholding.” 

In 1838, the Jesuits who managed Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved children, women, and men from Jesuit plantations in Maryland; they were sold for $115,000, roughly $422 per person. A transaction worth around $3.3 million in today’s value. The University used the profit from the slave trade to keep the University open when it was on the verge of closing.

Between 1838 and 1865, these enslaved people were sold to plantation owners in southern Louisiana, where they were held as collateral by Citizens Bank, currently owned by JPMorgan Chase, of New Orleans.

According to the Georgetown University website, the Reconciliation Fund, which was created by an undergraduate student referendum in 2019, welcomes applications for projects that help descendant communities and grants $400,000 yearly to community-based projects that aim to positively empower communities of descendants whose ancestors were enslaved on Maryland Jesuit plantations.

The Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation was created in 2016 after the University apologized for its role in the slave trade as a collaboration between the Society of Jesus and the GU272 Descendants Association. The GU272 Descendants Association currently represents over 13,000 recognized descendants, with member numbers growing. 

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In a statement released by the University, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said the foundation has an “extraordinary vision to uplift Descendant communities, support the educational aspirations of Descendants, and promote racial healing in our nation.”

“It is an honor for our University to have the opportunity to contribute to their efforts. The difficult truths of our past guide us in the urgent work of seeking and supporting reconciliation in our present and future,” DeGioia said.

Discussions about reparations for the descendants of enslaved people in the US have been called for throughout US history. For Kimathi Talton, a junior international affairs major from Brooklyn, New York, the recent actions taken by the institution and foundation represent a step in the right direction but not the end goal.

“I feel like it’s good that they did that,” he said. “And I do think that it’ll help to change an individual’s life. Obviously, the crime of slavery cannot be reversed with a paycheck, but I do feel like it’s a place to start.”

The gift will help the foundation’s goals, such as offering scholarships for descendants from early childhood to postsecondary education, assisting elderly and infirm descendants, and sponsoring national efforts for racial healing, reconciliation, and truth for the rest of their lives.

Maven McCann, a sophomore psychology major from Washington, D.C., commented on the precedent set by the university, saying, “I think this is a good start for one university. I feel like they’re setting a tone as to how to compensate people for the work that they’ve done to build up a university that has a great legacy.”

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However, McCann emphasized the need for broader accessibility to the university and Georgetown. “I grew up in DC, and I feel as if part of those reparations should be more broad,” she said. “It’d be really interesting if they made Georgetown, in general, more accessible to Black people in DC.” 

“Georgetown is like a little island, and there’s one bus that takes you there, but the rest of DC has a train stop for every major neighborhood,” McCann said. “So I think they could work on making the resources that they have more available to the community of DC because there are so many Black people in DC who deserve to be able to go to their libraries and use their computers or take a class if they want to.” 

In July, the foundation announced a scholarship partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, contributing up to $10,000 per year, according to Maddox. 

Dr. Melanie R. Holmes, an associate professor at the Howard University Department of History, spoke on the importance of education and financial stability for the descendants, as well as 

applauding the institution’s dedication to the cause. 

“The fact that they apologized in 2016 and now are making good on that apology. I think it shows that they’re prioritizing their commitment to giving back to the community they disrupted in 1838,” she said.

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“If Georgetown is committed to advancing the descendants in terms of their education and securing their financial stability, I have nothing but respect for that.” Holmes continued.

“An apology means nothing if there’s no atonement, which essentially is what reparations are about, atoning financially for the atrocity of slavery. I hope that those descendants are able to take full advantage of these financial benefits in ways that enhance their lives,” she continued.

Holmes highlights how financial reparations can serve as a means to right the wrongs of history; however, she acknowledges its limitations.

“I don’t think this will heal any wounds, but it will certainly help a targeted selection of the enslaved community. In the United States,” Holmes said. 

Father Tim Kesicki, SJ, chair of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Trust, stressed the importance of correcting past wrongs in a statement. 

“As a Catholic community, it is imperative that we don’t turn away from our sinful history of slaveholding and instead look inward at how we can right past wrongs with justice, healing, and compassion,” Kesicki said. “I am thrilled to see other Catholic and Jesuit institutions step up by investing in the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation’s mission to foster racial healing and uplift current and future Descendants.”

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Latrese Johnson, a sophomore African studies major, women, gender, and sexuality studies minor from Saint Paul, Minnesota, discussed the more profound systemic implications of reparations. 

“These people were sold into slavery. No amount of money is ever going to repair that harm.” Johnson said, “Money is a solution to the symptoms, not the illness.”

“My question is, how does this affect the systems that are still perpetuated, that keep African people subjugated? Since this is only going to a specific group of people,” they said.  

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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