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Descendants of Jesuit slaves say church is delaying promised reparations

A letter warns that Jesuits might ‘betray’ descendants as church betrayed their ancestors

Three years after descendants of Black people enslaved by Jesuits reached a $1 billion agreement that was hailed as a major achievement in the reparations movement, there is trouble in paradise. 

On Tuesday, the leader of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, Joe Stewart, released a blistering letter to the head of the worldwide Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. Stewart told Superior General Fr. Arturo Sosa of the Society of Jesus that he and his allies are in a “state of disillusionment” because the foundation has so far received only $15 million of a promised $100 million from U.S. Jesuit authorities, slowing down their efforts. Without intervention from the international church, Stewart wrote, “our partnership will simply disintegrate, and the Jesuits leaders of today will effectively betray Descendants today just as the Jesuits of the past betrayed our ancestors. Jesuits will attempt to put Reconciliation back on the shelf for another 200 years as voices for ‘reparation’ get stronger and stronger and louder and louder.”

This development highlights a major obstacle for the growing reparations movement — the idea of putting money into Black hands makes most white folks uncomfortable. Still, the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation and others are seeking compensation and repair for Black communities that suffered from enslavement and officially sanctioned racism.

In an interview, Stewart, who is president and board chairman of the foundation, told me that the movement of funds from the Jesuits to the foundation was too slow. “What we’re saying now is that we need to make this more of a near-future reality rather than a long-term proposition,” he explained.

Stewart’s letter said that while some U.S. Jesuit officials are working to fulfill the agreement, others “seem to prefer doing God’s work without such distractions as the earthly needs of Descendants,” while some “hardliners” believe “they weren’t here during Jesuit enslavement, never enslaved anyone and thus do not ‘owe’ anyone anything.” 

“The Jesuits are wealthy, the Catholic Church is wealthy,” Stewart said in the interview, then mentioned billions of dollars in assets held in universities, secondary and elementary schools, real estate and other endowments. “We are challenging them to do what they have agreed to do … to uplift the descendants that have been so badly harmed by the enslavement of their ancestors.”

Father Tim Kesicki, a Stewart ally who recently transitioned from his position as president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States to raising money for the descendants foundation, said it was taking longer than expected to gather the funds. He said the structure of the Jesuits, who are an independent order of the Catholic Church, makes it impossible for one person to decide to provide the promised $100 million — even Sosa.

“I certainly think if we were halfway to the $100 million, we’d be in a much stronger position,” Kesicki told me. “I know from experience that this takes time. This is such a new concept. Sharing what this vision is, asking people to invest in it – we’re having a lot of active conversations. I can’t force people who are considering this.

“It’s not so much what went wrong in terms of providing the $100 million,” he said, “but how do you feel the urgency of getting it right.”

My email to Jesuit headquarters in Rome received no response. A statement from the Jesuit Provincials of the United States said they “recognize and share the concern” of Stewart’s letter. “We are dedicated to the long-term vision to which we agreed with Descendant leaders, and we believe that our efforts will bear fruit,” the statement said.

Jesuits were among America’s earliest settlers, and they funded many of their activities through plantation slave labor. In 1838, Jesuits sold 272 enslaved Black people to secure the survival of the Jesuit college that became Georgetown University.

Stewart is from Maringouin, Louisiana, where many of the people sold by Georgetown ended up. In 2016, amid renewed attention on Georgetown’s transgressions, Stewart learned that he is a fifth-generation grandson of Isaac Hawkins, the first person listed on the university’s 1838 bill of sale. He became active in the community of descendants that reached the $1 billion agreement with the Jesuits, bringing his expertise as an entrepreneur, CEO, and board chairman of the nonprofit W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

Under Stewart’s guidance and vision, which was shaped by racial reconciliation programs modeled in South Africa and promulgated by the Kellogg Foundation, no unrestricted cash will be provided to descendants. Instead, half of the $1 billion was to be spent on programs to promote racial healing. Twenty-five percent was to pay for the education of descendants, 15% was for supporting elderly and infirm descendants, and 10% was for overhead. All descendants of Black people enslaved by Jesuits were to be eligible for benefits, not just the approximately 5,000 living descendants of the Black people sold by Georgetown.

The $1 billion figure was included in a September 2019 memorandum of understanding between the foundation and the U.S. Jesuits. The memo stated Jesuits would provide a “significant initial contribution”; in 2021 the Jesuits announced that sum would be $100 million provided over three to five years. The rest of the $1 billion is to be raised by the Jesuits from outside sources. The foundation has no responsibility to raise any money.

The first $15 million allowed the foundation to hire a director and begin to set up an infrastructure. Now Stewart, who is 79, is eager to start the process of identifying organizations that can use foundation grants to carry out its mission. 

His letter asks for the Jesuits to:

  • transfer $57 million in previous plantation land sales to the foundation’s trust by Christmas.
  • sell all remaining plantation lands and hand over the proceeds by Christmas.
  • deposit $100 million into the trust by July 1, 2023; $500 million by July 1, 2025; and $1 billion by July 1, 2029.
  • obtain an update on Stewart’s request for a descendant meeting with Pope Francis.

“Without your engagement, this partnership seems destined to fail,” Stewart wrote to Sosa.

If and when the money changes hands, it would be an amazing achievement for a movement that was confined to fringe discussions until a few years ago, when Ta-Nehisi Coates published his influential essay The Case for Reparations. Since then, individual efforts have sprouted in at least 11 cities; real estate credits have begun flowing to Black people in Evanston, Illinois; and California has established which Black people will be eligible for a state reparations program.

That said, polls show that most white Americans oppose the idea of reparations for Black people. The decades-old reparations bill in Congress made progress during the racial reckoning of 2020, but is now stalled. And a pattern has emerged: Even when white institutions are willing to admit to their sins, fund helpful programs, or redevelop oppressed Black neighborhoods, demands for cash on the barrel usually make them look like they have short arms and deep pockets.

When I spoke to Stewart several months ago for a story about the much-praised initial agreement, I asked what he wanted to see happen in his lifetime. He responded that he might not live long enough to see the first grant, but he’d like to help identify organizations that would do the most good with the foundation’s money.

But what about now? 

“It’s to go out of here fighting, if fighting is still necessary, and to go out hugging if we reach the Promised Land,” Stewart said. “Either way, I’m not backing off.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.