from the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team
Jesus said to his disciples: “No one can serve two masters. They will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” ~Matthew 6:24
Juneteenth, June 19th, is the day our nation has finally set aside as the day to mark the emancipation of the last of the African people in the United States who had been kidnapped and enslaved in the U.S. from 1619 to 1865. While Juneteenth has long been celebrated within the African American community of Texas, the celebration has just begun to spread more widely across the U.S. Why now? Because citizens have become more aware of how the terrible legacy of slavery continues in our country through structural racism.
When we think of emancipation, we may think of the great leaders of abolition. Their names have become enshrined in our historical consciousness: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ward Beecher, Abraham Lincoln, among many others. However, a new book has shed light on some less well-known names — people whose courage and fortitude are examples of nonviolent resistance to the physically and emotionally violent institution of slavery.
A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War is a history of enslaved individuals and families who sued for freedom through the court system, often against tremendous obstacles. William G. Thomas III tells this forgotten history in which he writes: “Slaves sued slaveholders in every court available to them and in every jurisdiction they could reach from the very beginning of the United States.”
The book is powerfully written and raises the names and voices of people who struggled for freedom and whose stories have been forgotten. Way before there were white abolitionists, there were Black families. Black families, while still enslaved, risked so much to sue not only for their freedom but for the recognition of their human dignity.
Instead of seeing an unnamed mass of “enslaved people,” Thomas sees individuals whose yearning for freedom is as inspiring today as it was courageous back then. More importantly, we see these individuals as members of families of love that were tragically ripped asunder by racism and greed: the racism and greed of powerful individuals—one of the most traumatic dimensions of the institution of slavery.
A Question of Freedom is an inspiring story of resistance.
When we remember histories of oppression and injustice, we often forget about the many individuals and groups who worked to resist oppression and work for justice. Thomas, a white man, does not exclude himself and his family from scrutiny in his research.
Woven between the chapters is his personal reflection about something he learned while doing his research: one slaveholding family were his ancestors. His reflection can inspire all white people to think about the racist attitudes and practices that our own ancestors may have perpetrated.
For Catholics concerned with justice, one of the saddest parts of the book is Thomas’s examination of the role that the Jesuits of Maryland had in the institution of slavery.
As one of the largest slaveholders in the state, the community profited greatly from the labor of enslaved people — not only from their labor but also from their sale. Profits from the Jesuits’ slave sales financially supported the fledgling college that the community had established at Georgetown.
Recently, the Jesuits have been investigating their history and have begun owning the truth about their past. The process began first with reconciling with the descendants of the enslaved people who labored for the community members and establishing a fund for reparations. The example of the contemporary Jesuits is a witness to our church and our nation for how we can all work towards repairing the damage caused by racist institutions.
Slavery may have ended over 100 years ago, but its legacy still haunts our nation and our church.
As we reflect this year on Juneteenth, let’s remember that though slavery as an institution may have ended, its legacy still lives with us. The legacy of slavery still lives with us as a nation and as individuals, and perhaps even in our own families’ not-talked-about legacies of racism.
And more importantly, we need to ask ourselves a challenging question: How does our own family’s personal history of racism affect us today?
- Take steps to educate yourself and your community about the idea of reparations. You can start by reading and discussing this seminal article, “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
- Form a book discussion group around A Question of Freedom, by William Thomas III. Encourage white participants to reflect on how the legacy of slavery has affected or benefitted them personally.
- Learn more about the reparations bill currently in the U.S. Congress (HR 40, “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act”) and call or write your elected officials to discuss your opinion of it.
- If you live in a state where people were enslaved, contact your local historical society to find out more about the lives of these people to learn more about who they were as individuals. Work to have their memory live on by establishing memorials at historic homes in your area where people had been enslaved.
- Mark Juneteenth publicly in your community as a day of celebration for freedom and commemoration of the damage that slavery and its legacy have caused our nation and BIPOC folks.
- Mark Juneteenth by holding a prayer vigil not only to remember those enslaved, but to address current issues of racial injustice in your communities. Consider using this prayer service developed for Juneteenth by the Anti-Racism Team.
- Watch the short video Anna: A Slave Who Sued for Freedom, describing the story of one of the people who was a subject of A Question of Freedom.
- Learn more about what the U.S. Jesuits are doing about reparations for the descendants of the families that their community had once held enslaved, by visiting their webpage on the topic. You can also read these recent articles from The New York Times:
- March 15, 2021: Catholic Order Pledges $100 Million to Atone for Slave Labor and Sales
- March 16, 2021: My Research Into the History of Catholic Slaveholding Transformed My Understanding of My Church
- April 17, 2021: A Catholic Order Pledged $100 Million to Atone for Taking Part in the Slave Trade. Some Descendants Want a New Deal
Find more resources on anti-racism and racial justice at this link.