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'Their Lives Matter': Descendants Of Those Owned By Jesuits Want Their Voices Heard

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Rashonda Alexander is a descendant of Jack and Sally Queen, an enslaved couple owned by Jesuits at St. Louis University.

Rashonda Alexander’s life has always revolved around her Catholic faith. She calls herself a cradle Catholic: baptized and raised in the faith, sent to Catholic schools and married in the church.

Growing up as a Black Catholic, Alexander always felt like the odd one out. It wasn’t until last year that she learned why her family has been Catholic for generations. Two of her ancestors were owned by a Catholic order of priests, the Jesuits, at St. Louis University.

“My mind was completely just blown all the way open,” Alexander said. “Mind blown emoji.”

Her ancestors, Jack and Sally Queen, were forced by Jesuits to come to Missouri from the White Marsh Plantation in Maryland in 1829. That was the same year the Jesuits assumed responsibility over St. Louis College, which would later become St. Louis University.

It was also where Alexander earned her degree in 2002.

“Over 100 years later, their descendant is literally paying to go to the institution that they were made to build for free,” she said.

A painful history

Between 1823 and 1865, the Jesuits at the Missouri mission owned, rented and borrowed more than 150 enslaved people. When the mission began in 1823, the Jesuits took three enslaved couples from their families at the White Marsh Plantation in Maryland and brought them to Florissant. They helped establish the St. Stanislaus seminary and plantation.

Six years later, more enslaved people, including the Queens, were sent from Maryland to Missouri. When the Jesuits took over St. Louis College, some enslaved people were forced to work there. Their labor included farming, cooking, laundry, room cleaning and wagon driving.

St. Louis University revealed the harsh reality in 2016 in findings through its Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project. It acknowledged that though Jesuits were prohibited from beating their enslaved, beatings and family separations were used as punishments.

For more than two centuries, the Jesuits were responsible for the enslavement of at least 2,000 people in North America. However, an 1838 sale in Maryland stood out. At the time, Georgetown College was in deep debt. In order to save it from going under, the president of Georgetown, the Rev. Thomas Mulledy, and the Rev. William McSherry chose to sell more than 272 enslaved men, women and children to sugar plantations in Louisiana.

Many of those who were sold or left behind at the Maryland plantation were related to enslaved people in Missouri. The discovery of the sale led to the formation of the GU272 Descendants Association — a group of descendants whose ancestors were sold to save the college.

The present day

In March, the Jesuits and a group of Georgetown University descendants announced a one-of-a-kind partnership — the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation.

The newly created foundation was a joint effort of the GU272 Descendants Association and the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States to atone for its involvement in slavery. The Jesuits pledged $100 million to the foundation, giving $15 million and promising to raise the rest through fundraising. The group’s leadership has said the goal is to make it a $1 billion foundation.

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Last year, Rashonda Alexander learned that Jesuits at St. Louis University, her alma mater, owned her ancestors.

When descendant Rashonda Alexander heard the news, she was stunned.

"Wow, really, you guys are admitting that you were involved in the enslavement of Black people,” Alexander said. “And you will have committed a dollar amount to it? This is big.”

Joe Stewart, a descendant of an enslaved person sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838, was instrumental in the foundation’s creation. He was part of the executive council of the GU272 Descendants Association and began working with Jesuits in 2016.

Stewart now serves as the foundation’s acting president. During an April panel discussion at Georgetown among Jesuits, a Georgetown official and descendants’ leadership, he said there has been plenty of research about the past.

Now, he said, the foundation provides an opportunity to look to the future and work toward racial healing and reconciliation — “to put in place a mechanism, institutionalized a response that attacks the legacy of slavery and dismantles that legacy that continues to manifest itself.”

Roughly half of the foundation’s budget will go toward racial healing and reconciliation work. The other half will fund educational scholarships and grants and provide emergency support to elderly or infirm descendants.

The foundation is not planning to give individual checks to each descendant.

A foundation spokeswoman said the descendants chose to partner with the Jesuits instead of seeking individual payments “because we believe that healing can happen only with a shared understanding of the past and sustainable investments in the present and future.”

The Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, said there were many hard truths the order had to come to terms with. During the April panel discussion at Georgetown, he said that in working with descendants, they agreed they wanted to continue to move forward.

“'Let’s not beat you up because of your past,'” Kesicki said they told him. “'But we will beat you up if you don’t commit yourself to changing the future.' So that is transformation. That is reconciliation.”

He said the Catholic Church in the U.S. needs to engage in racial healing and reconciliation work because it is part of this dark history.

“As the descendant leaders said to me, 'You have invested in institutions, buildings,'” Kesicki said. “'We want you now to invest in people. But invest in people in a way that is transformative and a bold investment.'”

The unheard

St. Louis native Robin Proudie is frustrated that she didn’t have a say in how the money will be used.

“That deal is an abomination to what our ancestors gave up,” Proudie said. “Their birthright was taken away from them, and that's how I feel. All money is not good money."

Robin Proudie
Robin Proudie visits the African American Civil War Museum, in Washington, D.C. Her grandfather three times removed, Charles F. Chauvin, is honored on the wall for serving in the Civil War. Chauvin's wife, Henrietta Mills, was owned by Jesuits at St. Louis University.

Proudie learned of her family’s connection when she received a letter in 2019 from researchers at the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation Project at SLU. It revealed that Proudie was a descendant of Henrietta Mills, an enslaved woman owned by the Jesuits in Missouri.

For Proudie, true atonement by the Jesuits is crucial. She said the foundation needs to prioritize creating a restorative justice plan.

“The damage that was done to our ancestors, which took a generational toll to this day, was multifaceted,” Proudie said. “So it can’t be one size fits all.”

Stewart, the foundation’s acting president, said he doesn’t expect every descendant to agree with the process.

“We can stand around and argue for another 200 years, or we can act,” he said during the earlier panel discussion. “And that’s all we have done. We have acted and we tried to take a different pathway from the confrontation and arguing to see if we can get some place. And at this point we have.”

Catholics are not the only faith group grappling with having owned people. In recent years, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and the Virginia Theological Seminary made commitments of their own.

The Rev. Iva Carruthers has been doing reparations work within churches for decades. Now general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a faith-based social justice organization, she said faith groups must lead the discussion regarding atonement.

“There is no way out of this unless there is a reallocation of what it means to have access to that which gives you human dignity,” she said. “And so the church as the voice of moral agency, the moral barometer, the ones who allegedly are entrusted and committed to creating the best of human community, have to show leadership beginning with self.”

Carruthers stressed that religious institutions must be honest about their past as a first step toward atonement. And, she said, justice has to be at the center of any financial contributions to descendants.

“It has to, I think, allow for those transactions to really reflect atonement, contrition and a covenant of non repeat,” Carruthers said. “And what that means is, don't do what you were going to do anyway and call it reparations.”

Sitting with the truth

Now living in Maryland, Proudie was deeply affected when she learned her ancestor Henrietta’s grandparents, Proteus and Anny Hawkins, had lived not far from where she resides today. The couple was forced to come to Missouri along with Jack and Sally Queen in 1829 from the White Marsh plantation.

Robin Proudie
Robin Proudie visited Old Bohemia Manor, a former mission and plantation where her ancestor, Mary Queen, is said to be buried. Proudie is a descendant of Henrietta Mills, an enslaved woman owned by the Jesuits at St. Louis University. Mills' grandparents, Proteus and Anny Hawkins (their surname is sometimes referred to as Queen) were brought to Missouri from the White Marsh Plantation in Maryland in 1829.

Proudie believes her ancestors led her back to Maryland.

“I went to the Queens' church here in White Marsh that our ancestors helped to build,” Proudie said. “And I feel it. I feel it. So I do know that it's fate. They are whispering in my dreams. Telling me, pushing me, to let me know that they were here … their lives matter.”

Proudie wants the foundation to come back to the table and talk with the larger community of descendants to get their input. She wants to see the foundation prioritize economic empowerment of descendants.

Descendant Rashonda Alexander agrees. She wants to see the funds used in a way that impacts descendants far into the future.

“Let's just not affect a generation and say, 'We did it, we helped you guys right now in 2021,’” Alexander said. “No, no, no, because my family and other families and other families and other families have helped you, for hundreds of years, amass this fortune.”

Despite everything she’s learned about her family’s history, Alexander said it hasn’t shaken her faith. She said she’s proud the Catholic Church is working toward atonement, taking a first step with the foundation.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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