Updated: July 11, 2019 06:15 AM GMT
A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. (Photo from Wikipedia)
The Catholic Church's connection to slavery was discussed at a conference for African-American Catholics on July 4, the nation’s Independence Day.
The Archbishop Lyke Conference hosted a workshop on "Truth and Reconciliation: The Sin of Jesuit Slaveholding" to examine the legacy of the Maryland province of Jesuits' sale in 1838 of 272 enslaved men, women and children that helped sustain the future of Georgetown University, the nation's first Catholic institution of higher learning. It was founded by the order in 1789.
Named after the late Archbishop James Lyke of Atlanta, the conference held near Washington D.C. seeks to embody his work of celebrating black Catholic worship and showcasing the gifts of the black Catholic community.
When asked about the irony of examining the Church's legacy of slavery on Independence Day, one of the workshop's panelists, Cheryllyn Branche, said: "For me, I never voiced why I didn't celebrate the fourth of July the way my nation does."
Referring to June 19, the day in 1865 when it was announced that slavery was abolished in America, she added: "June 19 was more important. When I was a little girl, dark skinned in New Orleans, the world didn't see me as free or equal."
Then Branche said: "May 24, 2016 — that's my independence day."
On that day, she learned that her ancestors — her maternal great-great grandparents Hillary and Henrietta Ford and their five children, including her maternal great grandfather Basil Ford, who was then an infant — had been among the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits in that infamous transaction.
Branche also spoke about reflecting on the enduring Catholic faith of her ancestors "who did not perish." They flourished in Louisiana despite working in grueling conditions on plantations, she said, and they passed on the faith through the generations of their family.
She said her maternal grandmother, Louise Ford Rogers, who was born on a plantation, endured indignities like sitting in the back of her Catholic church during times of segregation, yet remained a woman who devoutly prayed the rosary, was active in her parish and taught neighborhood children to read.
Another panelist, Danielle Harrison, said the United States and its institutions must acknowledge the sins of slavery and of racism to achieve reconciliation.
Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, noted how South Africa had to face its historic connection to apartheid, as Rwanda has had to do with the genocide that occurred in that country, and Germany has had to reckon with its role in the Holocaust.
"The United States has never reconciled its history with slaveholding or its treatment of native Americans," he said. "I pray for our nation today so that we can reconcile our history and be truly free."
Reflecting on his own order's role in slavery, Father Kesicki said: "The Jesuits did it. We bear the sin and the responsibility."
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