Last Thursday September 1, 2016, Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation issued its public report. The early reports about Georgetown having sold slaves in 1838 to pay its debts have raised questions and caused concerns for many of us on our campus and for alumni and friends of Jesuit schools.
The Working Group, whose work started about a year ago, is very detailed in its documentation of Jesuit slave holdings in the early colonies. The report includes details that were known, but that have not been very publicly acknowledged by the Society of Jesus.
As some of the U.S. Jesuit Provincials have done, I share this document with you, (Georgetown Report) as well as a letter to U.S. Jesuits about the Georgetown Report from the President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., our alum, the Very Reverend Timothy Kesicki, S.J.’84 (letter). I encourage you to read it and engage this history. As we celebrate the great work that Jesuits have done in our nation, we must also acknowledge our Jesuit participation in slavery as a sin. The challenge of understanding our involvement in slavery is not just theoretical or historical. In recent weeks I have come to learn, and must share with you all now, the fact that Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815) not only took part in the management of the Jesuit plantations and in slaveholding at some level, but that he also owned at least one slave who was given his freedom in Archbishop Carroll's will (Georgetown Report, Appendix G). I know that this will come as a shock and a disappointment to many of you, as it is to me. You will find these references in the Georgetown Report, and I am very appreciative of the work that they have done to document this history and bring it to light.
It is now up to our community to engage this history and learn more about both Jesuit slaveholding and Archbishop Carroll’s role in it. I believe that we must create and charge our own campus community Working Group to engage the U.S. Jesuit slaveholding history and our own Archbishop John Carroll's role in this sin, which is such a perversion of God’s creation. I envision that the Working Group will develop a participative campus process to help us learn about the historical record, taking advantage of the work that has been done on other campuses, and make recommendations about how we acknowledge this history and grow in our commitment to justice for all people. For example, the Oregon Province Provincial, the Very Reverend Scott Santarosa, S.J., states his hope that engaging our Jesuit history will lead to a “growing transparency around the Society’s historical participation in slave-owning [and] help us to come to a deeper awareness of our blind-spots around issues of race and power, which are poignant issues in our society today" (OR Provincial letter, 160902).
In the coming days, I will be consulting with our Board of Directors and campus leaders about the composition and specific charge of the Working Group. If you have any thoughts or questions, please contact the staff in the Office of Alumni Relations who will work to keep you informed. I know the Working Group will update campus on a regular basis and look for opportunities to share our history, hear your thoughts, and help shape John Carroll University’s way forward. The group will also recommend programming which engages our history and informs the ways we respond to contemporary issues of race and privilege. I look forward to your participation and support in our next steps.
Robert L. Niehoff, S.J.