Updated: July 15, 7:40 a.m. | Posted: July 14, 5 a.m.
When 64-year-old Minneapolis resident Elton Wright-Trusclair was growing up Black in Louisiana during 1960s-era Jim Crow segregation, his elders told him very little about his family’s history.
But through serving as an altar boy in a town where churches kept the races separated in services and even in cemeteries, Wright-Trusclair says he had a hunch that terrible things had been done to his family. He sensed that those crimes against his family and humanity could have been committed by the very Catholic institutions that relegated Black people to a lower status in his small town.
“My grandparents raised me, but they didn't talk about that part,” he said. “They didn't talk about that. Some things, a lot of old people didn't talk about because that's how they were raised. That's how they did us, manipulated us down there. And a lot of old people didn't talk about stuff like that.”
In 2017, top clergy and officials from the Society of Jesus and Georgetown University revealed some of the painful secrets that Wright-Trusclair now believes his grandparents were too traumatized to share.
In a public ceremony, the Jesuits and Georgetown apologized for selling 272 enslaved Black people to three Louisiana plantations in 1838, in a $115,000 transaction that kept then-struggling Georgetown from having to close its doors. Several generations of Wright-Trusclair’s family were enslaved by the Jesuits, including his grandparents’ grandparents.
“It is our very enslavement of another, culminating in the tragic sale of 272 women, men and children that remains with us to this day, trapping us in an historic truth for which we implore mercy and justice, hope and healing,” Father Timothy Kesicki, then the leader of the Society of Jesus for Canada and the U.S., told descendants at the ceremony.
MPR News is Reader Funded
Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.
But Wright-Trusclair is one of many descendants who say the Jesuits’ apology and the atonement gestures that followed were not enough. Some are frustrated that the Jesuit order chose to focus mainly on the 1838 sale, instead of detailing deeper history that is not widely known: The Maryland Jesuits entered the slavery business in around 1700, and the revenues from their five plantations funded the founding of Georgetown in 1789, as well as dozens of other Jesuit universities and high schools.
Further, the Jesuits enslaved more than one thousand people over more than a century and a half, not just 272 people. And in modern times, records show that the church has generated tens of millions of dollars from the sale of properties and plantation lands that were once cultivated by the enslaved ancestors of people like Wright-Trusclair.
According to the Georgetown Slavery Archive, by 1700, Jesuit priests had purchased enslaved people and established tobacco plantations on more than 12,000 acres along the Potomac River in southern Maryland. Over the next 164 years, the Jesuits enslaved about 1,100 people, according to Sharon Leon, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University.
The riches and success of the institutions that the Jesuits capitalized and built using slavery as a business model have sparked a debate that is showing how difficult and costly the path to atonement will be for many American institutions. Georgetown belongs to a consortium of fifty schools including Harvard, Brown, and the University of Virginia, which have pledged to study and confront the role that enslavement played in their histories and the impact that legacy has today. So far, the Jesuits’ journey on the road to atonement has been rocky.
Wealth built on the backs of enslaved people
The fact that the enslavement of four generations of Wright-Trusclair’s family helped fund the creation of droves of institutions that are now worth billions of dollars has led him and others to call for direct cash payouts. He believes that the trauma and long-term effects of Jesuit and Georgetown slavery still impacts his family today, including by blocking their ability to pass wealth down through the generations.
“I would like to see some kind of reparations,” Wright-Trusclair said, “It is unfair.”
According to the Georgetown archive, in its first 25 to 30 years, Georgetown College was financed directly by Jesuit plantations. That includes from 1793 to 1796, when the college was granted the rights to receive all profits from all five Jesuit plantations for a period of three years.
It also includes 1813, when the entire management and income of the St. Inigoes Manor plantation was placed under the direct control of the President of Georgetown College. And in 1816, Georgetown College was granted financial support to be paid from the St. Thomas Manor slave plantation in Charles County, MD, and Newtown Manor slave plantation in St. Mary’s County, MD.
The labor of the ancestors of Wright-Trusclair and others on Jesuit plantations also helped capitalize dozens of other Catholic colleges and high schools, including Loyola University in Baltimore and the College of the Holy Cross. Officials at Loyola only became aware of the school’s financial connection to slavery last summer. In December, the school launched a presidential task force to investigate its slavery ties.
The fact that this foundational history was not detailed in the 2017 apology to descendants and may still not have been shared with Jesuit institutions that benefited from slavery has intensified calls for transparency, more information and direct cash compensation from some descendants.
After the public apology, the members of a group representing descendants pushed without success for Georgetown and the Maryland Jesuits to meet with them to discuss reparations. Frustrated, they eventually sent a letter to the top Jesuit leader in Rome — going over the heads of the local Maryland order — complaining that “for more than a year we have literally been ignored.” They asked Rome to intervene.
They demanded a full accounting of the wealth their ancestors generated for the Jesuits and issued a rough number for what they believe they are owed in direct payouts: $1 billion. The Maryland Jesuits rejected that proposal.
Today, some descendants say it is unfair to discount the role that their ancestors played as revenue producers, stressing that Georgetown and dozens of other institutions would not exist if it hadn’t been for their families. This, they say, is the financial justification and basis for their $1 billion request.
But not all descendants agree on the best path forward. By 2018, the descendants split into different camps — each calling for different types of reparations. Some wanted the money to go directly to the descendants, while others wanted the money to be dispersed more generally, to charity and educational foundations benefiting Black Americans as a whole.
The Jesuits entered negotiations with a small group of descendants and the two sides emerged in March 2021 with a deal that did not include direct cash payments. Under that deal, the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. formed a new organization with those descendants, called The Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation.
The Jesuits pledged $100 million toward a $1 billion goal, funds that will be used in part to support initiatives such as educational scholarships for descendants, anti-racist programs and charitable organizations. The foundation set a goal to become the “moral and intellectual leader in the pursuit of truth, racial healing and transformation in America.”
But many descendants have rebuffed the Jesuit’s foundation and now accuse both the Jesuits and the university of shortchanging them. More than two hundred have signed a petition alleging that they have been cut out of “secret negotiations.” Some believe that the Jesuits used descendants as pawns in the 2017 apology, benefiting from publicity without detailing the full extent of their involvement in slavery or compensating the affected families directly.
The Jesuits did not respond to MPR News requests for comment.
Wright-Trusclair is among the descendants who don’t agree with the scholarship fund proposal.
“Everybody, ain't going to college,” he said.
A Georgetown University spokesperson said the school’s own atonement efforts and research it has done into the ties between the university and slaveholding is “neither the start nor the end of our work.”
Still, the university believes it has been transparent in saying that the 1838 sale was not the full extent of its involvement in slavery. Additional information has been provided, including in a 2016 report on slavery, in a pamphlet distributed on campus in the 2015-16 academic year and in material it has made public in its archives, the spokesperson said.
Slavery as a business model
Richard Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus and Italian-American entrepreneur, spent more than $50,000 of his own money to hire genealogists who have identified more than 11,000 descendants. He said the Jesuits should share information about the true depth of its financial dependence on slavery.
“Jesuit slavery dates from the 1690s to 1864 when enslaved people were emancipated in the state of Maryland,” Cellini said. “Maybe there are a few lines or sentences — adding up to a paragraph or two — where Georgetown and the Jesuits allude to the fact that their slaveholding was not limited to 1838. But they've really not done anywhere near an adequate job of explaining the true extent, depth and duration of their dependence on human trafficking and slavery.”
Some descendants say they can’t make any agreement with the Jesuits and Georgetown until Jesuit institutions disclose how much income they have generated and collected from the legacy of slavery, from the early 1700’s to today.
In a signed petition sent last year, one group asked the Jesuits to publicly disclose the balance sheet from the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen — the business entity that contained the Georgetown and Jesuits slavery operations — “from 1793 to the present day.”
As part of the petition, they requested “all information in the Society’s possession documenting how much wealth the Society generated from the enslavement of our ancestors; how this wealth was spent; and how much remains in the Society’s possession today.”
In 2009, the Jesuits sold more than 4,000 acres of former plantation land in Maryland for $57 million, real estate records show. The descendants’ concern about the sale of the plantation land is based partly on the fact that many of their ancestors are buried there.
The Jesuits denied the request for financial records. They have also declined to specify how much former plantation land the church still owns or at what it is valued.
Archives detail horrors of captivity
A review of Georgetown’s archive gives a clear window into why Wright-Trusclair’s grandparents may have been reluctant to discuss what happened to their elders while they were in captivity. Once sold in the 1838 transaction, many of his family members never saw each other again. And DNA tests have revealed that some of the slavery descendants are the offspring of prominent Jesuit clergy and Georgetown officials from the past.
Some descend from Rev. John Ashton, a white Jesuit priest and Georgetown founder who fathered the children of Susanna Queen, a Black woman he enslaved, who is also documented as being whipped during her childhood.
One letter in the archive is from a Jesuit official who reported the anguish expressed by some of the enslaved people as they were being gathered for sale to Louisiana, away from loved ones. He quotes an unnamed pregnant woman who protested, "If ever someone should have reason for despair, do I not now have it? I do not know on what day the birth will come, whether on the road or sea. What will become of me? Why do I deserve this?”
Father Peter Kenney, a Jesuit sent from Rome to visit Jesuit plantations in 1820 to report on the financial health of the slavery business, reported accounts of Jesuit priests whipping enslaved people. Some of those whipped were pregnant and some had “been tied up in the priests own parlor.”
He also reported a dearth of food supplies at several plantations.
Less than 10 percent of the records pertaining to Jesuit slavery have been placed online. The vast majority of the records are stacked in about two hundred boxes in a Georgetown Library. Some descendants say the fact that so many records have not been put online makes it harder for them to find other descendants, especially since the Jesuits and Georgetown are not providing any funds to help them search.
They have asked the Jesuits and Georgetown to fund and launch a formal search for the remaining 828 of the 1,100 enslaved people. Unlike the 272 in the 1838 sale, the vast majority of those people and their descendants have never been searched for or identified.
For example, the archives show that around 1825, the Georgetown Jesuits took between six and 10 slaves to Florissant, Missouri to build a seminary, which became St. Louis University. They also built St. Charles College in Louisiana and other churches and high schools in Kentucky and Ohio.
Historically, at least one Georgetown official expressed interest in tracking down the people the school enslaved.
In 1912, Father Joseph Zwinge SJ, business manager of the Maryland Province, published a series of historical essays about the Jesuit slave plantations, writing: “It might be interesting to know what became of our negroes in Louisiana.”
Precedent for reparations requests
The archive also shows that Georgetown’s refusal to consider direct reparations is at odds with its past. In 1862, following the Emancipation Proclamation, a top official at the Georgetown University School of Medicine sought compensation for the loss of seven enslaved people.
Dr. Noble Young, a founder and leader of the school, requested the U.S. government pay him $8,600, which he said was “moderate market values” for "Lucy $800: Henry $1,600: Matthew $1,300: Rachael $1,300: Henny $1,300: Eliza $1,100: John $1,000.
He described the people as invaluable. “What peculiarly enhances their value is their strict & scrupulous honesty: cheerful and affectionate dispositions: willingness to cook, capacity to learn and fidelity. Lucy an excellent cook — the men perfect waiters and the girls know nursing, washing and cooking."
Cellini believes the descendants should be paid direct restitution — similar to how some of Georgetown’s leaders once sought reparations.
“Sometimes when the topic of reparations comes up, even people who are pro-reparations will say, ‘Of course, we can't just give money to Black families and let them use it for just anything. We have to put some restrictions on it,’” he said. “Folks will say, ‘We can’t just give them $50,000, because they'll use it to buy a car.’ Well, my family is a white family, and last year we came into an extra $50,000, and can you guess what we did with it? We bought a new car.”
Some descendant families have retained attorneys to help them pursue reparations, including Georgia Goslee, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer.
“They are very disgruntled and very dissatisfied, feeling as though they have been deceived,” Goslee said. “Georgetown admits and accepts the responsibility. We believe part of that responsibility is compensation to the descendants individually, as opposed to an organization or a foundation that purports to represent the descendants. In fact, they don't, and they didn't at the time that the deal was cut.”
Georgetown’s student body passed a referendum in 2019 to establish a $400,000 charitable fund to pay for things such as health care costs and education programs for descendants.
Students voted to pay $27.20 per semester into the fund. Eventually, Georgetown told students their fund wasn't necessary, and established its own similarly focused $400,000 charitable reserve to be funded by the university.
As part of that effort, the university, which has an endowment of about $2.6 billion, intends to invest money in community-building projects instead of direct reparations. It has also re-christened a campus dormitory once named for the long-ago school president who had helped arrange the 1838 sale, re-naming it after an enslaved patriarch of the 272 people.
Children of descendants applying for entry have also been granted “legacy” status at Georgetown, which means they receive special consideration in the admissions process. But some descendants have expressed frustration that Georgetown does not currently offer any scholarships to the descendants of people that it trafficked and enslaved.
Lasting legacy of slavery
Elton Wright-Trusclair feels proud when he thinks back to his grandparents' generation.
He says despite the actions of the Jesuits and Georgetown, his family survived. However, generations later some family members kept working for the Jesuits and as sharecroppers on the farms of Louisiana enslaver families until they died.
“They did a lot of people so bad and that's mainly why they should have reparations,” he said. “Because of the way that they treated us people so bad.”