USA: Local initiatives help counter lack of national progress on reparations – By Mohamed Hamaludin

— Fourth in a series –By Mohamed Hamaludin

A 7,000-word history of the Catholic Church in America, written in 2000 by the late Robert J. Fox, which the Catholic Education Resource Center posted online, only very briefly mentions slaves: “The abuse of Indians by white men mars the pages of American history, as does the abuse of black people as slaves.”

The account notes that the first African American Catholic bishop was James A. Healy, who headed the Portland, Maine, diocese from 1875 to 1900 and that he was the son of an Irish immigrant father and a slave mother. It does not indicate that his father, Michael Morris Healy, owned between 49 and 60 slaves on his cotton plantation and that because his mother, Mary Eliza, was a slave – whom the elder Healy bought but did not marry because that was prohibited — their son was a slave also. Bishop Healey was light-skinned enough to identify as European.   

However, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, posted online an account headed, “James Augustine Healy: From slave to scholar to shepherd.” This report explains that when the elder Healy, who lived in Georgia, was 33, he bought Mary Eliza, then 15, along with her mother and six siblings, for $3,700. But this profile of Healy too does not deal with the church’s slavery history.

Catholicism arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries with the Spanish and the French. Citing historians and archival documents, Rachel L. Swarns reported in The New York Times that the church reached the South in the early days of the republic and relied on plantations and enslaved laborers for its survival and expansion.

The Jesuits, who once believed that enslaved Africans had souls but were still property to be bought and sold, have been atoning over the years and its contrition peaked after collaboration with the GU272 Descendants Association. The group was founded in 2016 to focus on the more than 272 enslaved Africans owned by Georgetown University which sold them in 1836 to plantations in Louisiana for its financial survival.

The association opened unpublicized talks in May 2017 with representatives of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and Georgetown University – the oldest Jesuit institution of higher learning in the country, founded in 1789 — and descendant leaders Cheryllyn Branche, Joseph M. Stewart.

By last March, the negotiators agreed to establish a Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation to “support the educational aspirations of Descendants for future generations and to play a prominent role in engaging, promoting and supporting programs and activities that highlight truth, accelerate racial healing and reconciliation and advance racial justice and equality in America,” the Jesuits say on their website. They agreed also to set up a trust fund to raise $100 million initially, with a long-term goal of $1 billion, to finance the work of the foundation, Swarns reported.

J.P. Morgan Chase is a co-trustee of the trust. The bank bought Citizens Bank of New Orleans, which had used the 272 enslaved Africans as collateral for its activities, the Jesuits’ website reports.

Much earlier, Maryland Jesuits established the Carroll Fund in the 1960s to help low-income African American students, using proceeds from the sale of property that had been part of one of their plantations which raised between $15 million and $25 million, Jesuit officials told Swarns.

The sisters of the Sacred Heart, which had owned 150 enslaved Africans in Louisiana and Missouri, created a scholarship fund forits schools in Grand Coteau, La. A year later, Virginia Theological Seminary, which had relied on slave labor, created a $1.7 million scholarship fund. Princeton Theological Seminary announced it will spend $27 million on scholarships and other initiatives.

At another level, California, on Sept. 30, 2020, did what Congress has not, creating a task force to study the impact of slavery and recommend what compensation should be offered and to whom, NBC News’ Alicia Victoria Lozano reported. California was founded in 1850 as a slavery-free state, with exemptions for temporary residents and those who bought slaves before statehood, Lozano noted.

Evanston, a Chicago suburb where African Americans are 16 percent of the population of 75,000, has set up a $10 million fund to be financed from taxes on medical marijuana over the next decade to offer $25,000 housing grants, The Washington Post’s Mark Guarino reported.

The Asheville, N.C., city council unanimously approved a housing measure In July 2020, CNN’s Abby Phillip reported. Discrimination has led to African Americans’ comprising 60 percent of public housing residents while being only 12 percent of the city’s population, the council acknowledged.

College towns are also responding. European American yoga instructors Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews co-founded Reparations for Amherst in the University of Massachusetts hometown. Their research showed that only five percent pf the population of nearly 38,000 were African Americans, due to “restrictive housing policies,” the Associated Press’ Philip Marcelo reported. They suffered also from discrimination in jobs and educational opportunities. The city council, responding to a petition drive which Miller and Adams led, voted in December for a “path of remedy” for residents “injured or harmed by discrimination and racial injustice.” In Virginia, a recent law directsthe state’s five public colleges to provide “tangible benefits” for slave descendants.

Such “wide-ranging approaches” could provide a model for a national reparations program, said Kamm Howard, who co-chairs the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. But The Washington Post’s Peter Dixon cautioned that “the line can blur between social policies offered to people because they are in need — or simply because they are citizens — and reparations for those whose rights have been violated. Such blurring reduces the potency of reparation as a material and symbolic act of justice.”

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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