400 years ago, the first African slaves in the United States arrived in Virginia.
For the next 246 or so years, nearly every institution that helped the country flourish could credit slavery with its success.
Who couldn’t turn a profit with free labor?
The United States owes its successful foundation to the African men, women and children who worked themselves to death at the end of its whip.
Sometimes with a gentler hand and sometimes not, the Catholic Church in the United States also benefitted significantly from the enslavement of human beings made in God’s image.
Since 2015, Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, has studied and acknowledged its historical connection to slavery. The Jesuits owned plantations in Maryland — worked by slaves — to finance the school. Over the years, the Jesuits would sell off slaves to help pay its debts and in 1838, the school sold a staggering 272 men, women and children at once to a slaveholder in Louisiana.
Georgetown is just one institution whose success depended upon the lives of enslaved people.
Similar histories permeate the Catholic Church’s history here. The founding bishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville, the celebrated Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget owned slaves, according to “An American Holy Land,” a history of the archdiocese written by Father Clyde Crews.
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine (now part of the Dominican Sisters of Peace) and the Sisters of Loretto held a prayer service in 2000 to apologize for slaveholding. The motherhouse cemetery at Nazareth, where slaves and sisters alike are buried, has a monument to slaves.
These slaves were sometimes part of a young woman’s dowry as she entered the convent. The archdiocese’s earliest churches were also built at least in part by slave labor. Among them is the diocese’s first cathedral — the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, which celebrates its bicentennial this year.
These realities were illuminated last year by Steve Crump, a Louisville native and descendant of the area’s early black Catholics, in his 2018 documentary, “Facing an Uncomfortable Truth.”
The film highlights the contributions made by Kentucky’s early African American Catholics as far back as the 18th century. They first came here with their captors, pioneers from Maryland seeking their own freedom — from religious persecution, Crump explains.
“They were builders and caretakers, parishioners and worshippers. Understanding what they did, how they lived and the sacrifices they made means coming to grips with ‘facing an uncomfortable truth’ by connecting bluegrass roots and Catholic realities,” Crump told Record reporter Jessica Able in a 2018 interview about the documentary.
We would do well to face this truth that is truly uncomfortable.
Annette Turner, executive director of the archdiocese’s Office of Multicultural Ministry, said recently, the first step is to acknowledge the fact of slavery and the ways it benefitted the church and its people.
“It’s the history of the people in the U.S. of A. Once we get our arms around that, we will recognize through all the turmoil and pain there were so many gifts imparted to people in the U.S.” by slaves.
Now that’s an idea.
Let’s not only acknowledge the horrific history of slavery. Let’s honor the gifts the enslaved men, women and children brought to this nation and archdiocese.
We can begin to do that by learning their stories. The Record will try to start illuminating the stories we can find. And we invite our readers, with connections or interest in this history, to share their stories with us.