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Curved pews are seen inside of a church.
© 2016 AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Amid a growing national reckoning with slavery and its legacy in the United States, including systemic racism, several prominent religious institutions have begun acknowledging their own role in slavery, and taking steps to begin reparations processes or similar initiatives.
Last week, the Jesuits pledged USD$100 million for the descendants of enslaved Africans they once owned and profited from. The initiative, which they describe as a process of “truth, healing and reconciliation” rather than reparations, comes in partnership with descendants of enslaved Black people whom the Jesuits sold in 1838 to plantation owners in Louisiana. Together they formed a foundation aiming to raise USD$1 billion, over the long term. Current funding will go toward organizations engaged in racial reconciliation projects, providing scholarships and education grants for descendants, and emergency care for older descendants in need.
While this is one of the largest financial initiatives of its kind, it is not the first from a religious institution. Several Episcopal organizations, including the Dioceses of New York, Maryland, and Texas, have committed to studying their role in the institution of chattel slavery and providing funds for reparations. The Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary have started similar initiatives.
Human Rights Watch supports reparations for slavery and continuing harms at the state, local, and federal government level. In 2020, we produced a case study on the need for the government to provide reparations stemming from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a white mob killed several hundred Black people and destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Authorities never accounted or provided meaningful redress for the attack and destruction, compounding the harm flowing from slavery and continuing to impact Black Tulsans today.
Many prominent religious institutions in the US benefited from slavery. Increasingly, these institutions are acknowledging the history, not only through their own reparation initiatives but with their support for House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), a bill that would establish a federal commission to investigate the legacy of slavery and recommend proposals for repair.
The federal, state, and local governments need to fully account for their roles in slavery and post-emancipation discriminatory policies. Religious institutions and others can also play an important role in addressing the deeply entrenched impacts stemming from the legacy of slavery. This most recent effort signals increased recognition of the need for meaningful redress.