The Society of Jesus owes these people… Something…


"African-Americans have long lived with unanswered questions about their roots, missing branches in their family trees and stubborn silences from elders reluctant to delve into a painful past that extends back to slavery. This month, scores of readers wrote to us, saying they had finally found clues in an unexpected place: an article published in The New York Times.

The story described the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. The men, women and children were owned by the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold — for about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — to help the college now known as Georgetown University stay afloat. We asked readers to contact us if they suspected that their ancestors were among those slaves, who had labored on Jesuit plantations in Maryland before being sold to new owners in Louisiana"  NY Times


Well, pilgrims, I am not exactly a "bleeding heart" liberal torn by guilt about the "peculiar institution."  My writings should make that clear, but this is an extraordinary story. 

I have long held that ancestors should not be condemned for living according to the mores of their times although there were always some who behaved better than the average  level of virtue among their contemporaries. 

It can be argued that for the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to have held these 272 men, women and children in slavery can be excused if the slaves were treated as fellow children of God in the spirit of St. Paul's epistles, at least one of which is addressed to a slave.  It can be argued that a great good was supported by these slaves' labor on the Jesuits plantations in Maryland. That good was the existence of then Georgetown College, now Georgetown University. 

What is not acceptable to this pilgrim is the crass decision to sell these people, (the Jesuits clearly thought of them as Brothers and Sisters in Christ) when the farms became unprofitable, a decision made in the sure knowledge that the buyers' future behavior toward the slaves could not be foreseen.  In the event the buyers who took them all to Louisiana did not in all cases carry out the terms of the sales and did not treat the people well.

Miraculously many of the slaves continued to remain resolutely Catholic.  Many of their descendant remain so until now.  Many became prosperous citizens after emancipation. 

There was a public outcry after the sales of the slaves by the Jesuits and the two offending priests were called to Rome where they were "re-assigned," presumably by the General of the Society of Jesus.  The following year Pope Gregory banned the participation by Catholics in the slave trade but the damage was done for the people literally "sold down the river."

Georgetown University is no longer owned by the Society of Jesus although there is an enduring Jesuit presence there.  The university is a non-profit corporation.  The university should deal with this matter according to the dictates of its collective conscience but the order owes the descendants of the people it betrayed a great debt in payment of which penance should be done.  pl

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44 Responses to The Society of Jesus owes these people… Something…

  1. bth says:

    This is a fascinating story. The school could if it chose make an enormous gesture of goodwill to the descendants by offering them free tuition.

  2. tim s says:

    Reparations are a rabbit hole with no bottom, and in my estimation, an illusory foundation.
    The unfortunate fact of slavery is that the slave is owed nothing – they were slaves. They did not have the mental or physical strength to keep those mentally or physically stronger than them from imposing their will onto them. Morally repugnant to some, granted, but morality is an ideal and a very individual/subjective one at that. Nature seems to care not a bit for morality, unless it makes an individual or group stronger somehow.

  3. Laura says:

    Colonel, Amen to that.

  4. turcopolier says:

    tim s
    Too much hard heart and not enough empathy. pl

  5. jonst says:

    I think there is no stopping this once the flood gates are opened, however deservedly, or not. They will be figuring payments, and who pays, for the next century.

  6. tim s says:

    I spent a good part of my life claiming the viewpoint espoused above. My heart was plenty soft. I’ve seen the error of my idealistic ways, and won’t make such arguments anymore.
    We put a nice face on humanity and think of ourselves as semi-gods, but in the end the laws of nature will not be violated.
    I have empathy for those descendants of slaves who are good and just people who are trying their best to overcome. I’ll root for the underdog frequently as I see them engaged in a mighty struggle. I’ll do the opposite if I see/hear groups such as BLM raging about injustice in the past and what they’re entitled to due to that.
    What BLM doesn’t seem to get is that their ancestors were slaves, these slaves were in no way anywhere near being strong enough to free themselves from bondage, events occurred that allowed them the great fortune of being freed from slavery according to the law, and they remain relatively free today, according to the law.
    Most of what I see in African-American culture today shows that, as a whole, this group was not yet “ripe” to hold their own in an advanced civilization. This civilization still is subject to the laws of nature, however camouflaged, can be brutal and predatory, and those living in it must be able to survive and thrive somehow. Left to their own devices as a group, I don’t see them being able to do it, being so easily repressed. But I digress.
    Nobody is owed anything. Tomorrow is promised to noone. The best advice I can give to anyone concerning slaves is – don’t be one. Struggle with all your might to keep it from happening for yourself and your offspring. If it happens, do your best to get out of it. Figure out why you’re on the bottom of the pecking order and work to overcome it, rather than whining about it, which will get you nowhere.

  7. turcopolier says:

    tim s 7 jonst
    I don’t think this has anything to do with generalized Black grievance culture or BLM which is in my opinion a farce born in the untruth of the Ferguson situation and wrongly supported by Obama. The Jesuits specifically wronged these people who depended on them in the most literal way and IMO owe them. pl

  8. bth says:

    A voluntary act of goodwill on the part of the school would be a lot different than forced reparations.

  9. David Lentini says:

    To Tim and Jonst:
    One thing to keep in mind is that the priests involved in the transactions here were found to have misled the Order and Vatican and were duly punished. Thus, the transaction was itself recognized by the Church as based on immoral behavior and therefore of questionable legitimacy. So, arguably the slaves wrongly sold were owed a debt by at least the priests who were culpable if not the Society itself.
    As for the more general question, I tend to agree that any sort general “reparation” is fraught with problems, often sounding more like a “race tax” than true remuneration. As both Jesus and the Virgin Mary have said, true justice is not in this world.

  10. turcopolier says:

    Forced reparations? What are you talking about? Where did you get that? The university IMO should make a gesture but the Society of Jesus MUST make a gesture or be forever shamed. pl

  11. turcopolier says:

    David Lentini
    What, in anything I wrote suggested approval for general reparations for Blacks for slavery? What? As for justice, a search for justice is one of the things that distinguishes us from other animals. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42) Tell me where Jesus and Mary taught that justice was not to be done in this world. Tell me. pl

  12. jonst says:

    I do not think anything you wrote Col suggest opened reparations/payments. Rather, I think you implied the opposite. But I work with Plaintt’s some times. Not AS ONE, thankfully. But I provide them a service. Same as I do with the defense bar. I am a mercenary when it comes to choosing sides. But the moment this starts, and industry/service sector will start with it. And nothing under the Sun will stop them. Plaintiff’s lawyers will move so fast setting up Mealey Like Conferences will turn up so fast the suction of the lawyers socks will take have of town with them. Defense conferences will follow

  13. mbrenner says:

    Since you are being completely candid in expressing what I deem repugnant views, allow those like me who disagree to label them frankly as blatant racism of the kind which has plagued this country since the day the first slave was forcibly brought to these shores.
    It is all the more repugnant for coming from someone who apparently has “thought it through” and come up with some half-baked philosophy that mixes an extreme form of social Darwinism with a reading of Hobbes as a documentary of the human experience.
    By your “logic,” were a child of yours grabbed off the street by a gang and sold into sexual slavery in Bangkok, it would simply indicate that the child had not the mental or physical traits that justified a claim to better treatment – and anybody who found its fate a grotesque injustice would be an “idealist.”

  14. turcopolier says:

    jonst and lentini
    I am a bit sensitive to issues concerning slavery since my utterances both written and spoken indicate that I do not believe the Confederates were like the Nazis. Nevertheless, I will state categorically that I oppose general reparations for blacks for slavery. IMO that is just an attempt to shift political and economic power in this country and is unjustified by the present circumstances of Blacks in the US. BTW my WBS ancestors were abolitionists and all fought for the Union in the infantry. pl

  15. “What is not acceptable to this pilgrim is the crass decision to sell these people, (the Jesuits clearly thought of them as Brothers and Sisters in Christ) when the farms became unprofitable, a decision made in the sure knowledge that the buyers’ future behavior toward the slaves could not be foreseen.”
    I think one question that needs to be answered here is what sort of laws Washington DC and Maryland had at the time regarding manumission. I have been told that some states used to forbid it, requiring all slaves either to be transferred from one owner to another, or else to the state.

  16. turcopolier says:

    Seamus Padraig
    I do not doubt that this was a legal set of transactions but is that really the point? pl

  17. scott s. says:

    As a one-time resident of Annapolis, I was interested in Maryland history but never read of this connection of the RCC and slavery (generally histories tend to comment on Catholic persecution which I suppose is a bit ironic). This week end we will be hearing of “Howard’s war-like thrust” but I don’t think the intended reference to the “despot’s heel on thy shore” was the SJ.

  18. bth says:

    I am in total agreement. You misread.

  19. turcopolier says:

    scott s
    IMO opinion it was the despot’s heel. Lincoln arrested the secession inclined members of the Maryland legislature. pl

  20. turcopolier says:

    Thanks for the correction. pl

  21. Harry says:

    I don’t think Tim ‘ s argument is racist. It is not humane but it is not racist. However he does give me a reason to laugh down the line when the police benevolent association calls begging. Similarly, I think he is telling me to use offshore vehicles to exempt my wealth from taxation, and to avoid any charitable donations.
    Some of my ancestors were slaves and had only themselves to blame. Funnily enough i first came across this point of view from an African woman who was being rude to my mother. But now how should I behave around poor whites, of which there are still plenty? Should I consider them inherently weak or inherently feckless? I hope the world is not as Hobbesian as you suggest. I know the order that I have benefited from in my life is won at some cost by rough men. But they do not protect me and others solely for money.
    With respect to the Jesuits shame on me, but I don’t consider hypocrites the greatest sinners. I am impressed the church acknowledged the error.

  22. turcopolier says:

    Did I say or suggest that Tim S is a racist? pl

  23. tim s says:

    My views are just what I see. I do have children, and I will say that ultimately their well being is noone’s responsibility but mine, since they are my offspring. If the conditions were such that my children were at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, then it would be my responsibility to prevent that from happening, either by standing my ground and fighting off those who would kidnap, or fleeing. I’d hope that at that point I had enough community support that others would be watching my back and looking out for my children and helping me in this fight, but community is something that grows organically and cannot be enforced by laws. Laws are good, but only effective if an organic community is already in place. Take at a look at the USA today for an example of where laws are meaningless without community.

  24. tim s says:

    I’ve hoped the world is not as Hobbesian as it seems for most of my life. Hope doesn’t seem to be carrying things that well, though. Humans are most strange. There is a divine element, but underneath that is a very basic nature, and this mix it seems can only be captured in myth.
    Poor whites may be inherently weak, feckless, etc, no different from poor whoever. Rich and poor may change positions in time. Given enough time, some turnover is inevitable. It’s more strength & weakness than rich and poor, which wax and wane. Regardless of race, it is up to whoever as individuals and as part of a community to try to raise themselves somehow. That initiative can only come from within individuals and then spread within a community. Any feeling of entitlement on their part will only serve as a hindrance.
    As far as Hobbes and Darwinism goes, looking back over the course of recorded history, count how many civilizations have come and gone. They’ve come and gone largely due to continual conflict. Humanism is found only between individuals within this larger context. They are not mutually exclusive.
    I greatly appreciate the humanism of our existence. When it’s genuine it’s the best thing in life. I don’t see it as the driver though at all times. Maybe after times of great conflict and people are fatigued with barbarism, humanism may loom large in influence. Given enough time of “civility” and the humanistic elements seem to atrophy. Look at the West now. The humanists can hardly raise a finger to halt the advancement of the worst elements in our society, which will almost surely bring us to ruin. And with this accusation I point directly at myself. But I am far from alone.

  25. tim s says:

    Sorry if I was careless to have linked reparations with your proposition. It is a fine line that is drawn, however.

  26. different clue says:

    tim s,
    The only common decency we will see is the common decency we show to eachother.
    The bed we make for Darwin’s discards is the bed we lie in if Darwin discards us.

  27. Your slave ancestors had the only themselves to blame ? Really? Please expound on that. Mbrenner has nailed this on the nose and your proposition that slaves were responsible for their own enslavement is less than ludicrous.

  28. kao_hsien_chih says:

    I think the main issue with “reparations” for slavery is not the slavery itself.
    Like it or not, slavery was a common institution throughout human history. The African slaves sold to the New World, for the most part, were already enslaved in West African societies where they came from according to the customs and laws thereof. If we in United States “owe” the African-Americans a “reparation” for their past slave status, then the same (or more) applies to modern Nigerians, Ghanians, and Cameroonians whose ancestors literally profited by selling them to European slave traders.
    At the same time however, we probably should do something, even if we don’t call it “reparations” if only to recognize that slavery in US history was an abominable and repugnant practice, a reflection of our moral failure as a society. I don’t think it is a “crime,” if only on a technicality, but a grave sin nevertheless for which we should do a penance. Georgetown and SJ should do something in recognition of its past moral failure, and something similar at the national level would be good for our collective souls too.

  29. kao_hsien_chih says:

    I suppose what I said above is that, a “reparation” for slavery (which should not be called a “reparation”) is more about our own morality as a nation, a recognition of our historical “sins,” not a “penalty” for a “crime” which I don’t think it was.

  30. Nick Smith says:

    “I have empathy for those descendants of slaves who are good and just people who are trying their best to overcome.”
    I find this statement difficult to take seriously.

  31. Cee says:

    Scholarship funds are in order I remember when I started searching for my ancestry and was under the assumption that they all came in and disembarked in the Deep South only to find out it was in Charleston. They were then sold down the river which is the worst fates. I did locate white ancestors who didn’t want to give up any information because I thought I wanted money when all I wanted was information. Oh well.

  32. Jill says:

    Well said!

  33. ked says:

    The difficulty of the topic is significant, as the tenor of comments reveal. When it comes to slavery in America, simply recognizing events like this Jesuits slave-deal raises an immediate defensive reaction over reparations. Let’s see what the Jesuits come up with to deal with their institutional behavior – it’s more their public issue than the nation’s.

  34. The point is: what if they had no choice but to sell these slaves? What if manumission were not a legal option? That would be a mitigating factor in my view.

  35. turcopolier says:

    Seamus Padraig
    Manumission laws varied a lot by state in the antebellum world. I don’t know what the law was in Maryland. In Virginia, people could be freed in wills or by having a white owner go to state court to affect manumission. This happened quite a lot in cases in which a skilled slave was allowed to charge for his services as something like a smith and bought himself from his owner. The state legislature tried fitfully and somewhat half heartedly to send freed blacks out of the state but the law, like that against teaching slaves to be literate was largely unsuccessful. As a result the number of free Blacks in Virginia rose steadily. pl

  36. YT says:

    Off-thread. But I was disappointed to discover that “black lives matter” was funded by one “philanthropist” that also funded “the lgbt movement” amongst other freaks.
    I guess messing up Asian markets in ’97 for profit wasn’t enough.
    “Not resting on laurels,” perhaps only a civil war in 21st. c. America (utterly destroying bedrock of family values & other Conservative values) will satisfy such curs.
    I must inform my other Nigga-loving associates ’bout this, whom like me lean towards minorities…

  37. Harry says:

    It is the implication of Tim S’ world view. But it is also a view my mother once came across when in argument with an African lady. She suggested that my mother’s ancestors were too stupid to evade capture and enslavement.
    I hope once bitten twice shy, and that none of my decendents are unlucky enough to find themselves in the same circumstances.

  38. Harry says:

    Sorry I should have been clearer. I think Tim S is arguing for an extreme form of self reliance. Or rather that life is essentially Hobbesian whether we like it or not. Any injustice which is not remedied can potentially generate an argument for reparations. It seems obviously impractical to offer reparations to the decendents of slaves, but that leaves an injustice without remedy, which continues to echo in American life. If you superimpose a map of American poverty over a map of slavery the two maps are essentially identical. If we are Hobbesian we are free to ignore this.
    I think reparations are impossible, but the circumstances of the “peculiar institution” do create another argument for a better social safety net for all Americans. An argument that wouldn’t exist in Denmark.
    Of course you could take the view that that is no one else problem. Life is inherently unfair and ex-slaves have only their ancestors to blame for the many years of unremunerated work. Some do. I disagree but I do think life is a bit like boxing – always keep your hands up!

  39. Harry says:

    No you did not Sir. Mbrenner did.
    “Since you are being completely candid in expressing what I deem repugnant views, allow those like me who disagree to label them frankly as blatant racism of the kind which has plagued this country since the day the first slave was forcibly brought to these shores.”

  40. tim s says:

    Much appreciated Harry. My sentiments precisely, although your wording is less harsh, and your history can provide more of a firewall than mine.
    I realize my views will sit as they do with many people, as is shown here. I mean no malice. It’s just the world as I see it, which is admittedly entirely subjective. I’d love to have enough convincing arguments against my view to convince me that we do live in a humanitarian world, which would be more comfortable than the one I see. The moral outrage against my outlook falls a bit short of convincing.
    No big deal. All the best to you.

  41. Harry says:

    Sadly Tim, my experience of the world has also made me sympathetic to a Hobbesian perspective. It takes an effort to fight that tendency.

  42. different clue says:

    One wonders if that African lady’s ancestors were involved in the mass-roundup and mass-sale of people like your mother’s ancestors to the slavers. One wonders if that African lady was doing some after-the-fact rationalization for her ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade . . . if indeed her ancestors were involved in it.

  43. shepherd says:

    In case there’s any curiosity about Paul sending a letter to a slave, this is not at all unusual. A slave in Rome had a quite different status and outlook from one in the antebellum South.
    While we like to project modern, democratic fantasies on it, Rome was much like a caste society, with varying levels of rights (and requirements). The lowest caste was the “servus” or “servant” (the word “slave” actually comes from a later French word). While I don’t recommend Roman slavery to anyone, especially not in galleys or mines, slaves had some rights. They could own property, buy their own freedom, and even attain high status while still being slaves. In fact, many slaves were literate, as they were trained by their masters to write. Some became noted writers themselves, including Epictetus.
    The very early Christian religion was highly egalitarian and did not recognize caste distinctions. It was thus attractive to slaves and also women, who were often bishops in those days, though the office was not the same as what it became. So Paul writing a slave was not at all unusual, however it may seem. It’s more an expression of what early Christianity was like, who was involved, and so on.

  44. turcopolier says:

    In the ante-bellum South skilled slave were often hired out or allowed to run a business in which fees were share between owner and slave. with these funds slaves frequently bought their freedom and subsequently that of some relatives; wives, children. pl

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