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History can aid understanding of current racial unrest, researchers say

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WASHINGTON, DC – When Georgetown University and the Jesuits began trying to redeem themselves for selling 272 slaves to a Louisiana plantation in the 1830s, leaders at the Catholic institution of higher learning went to- beyond their apologies and their offers of restitution.

Georgetown officials started the Georgetown Slavery Archive in 2016 and put it online for people to access because they felt it was important to help people understand the past as a way to secure the future.


“Anything you think society should do today to address the legacy of slavery and other forms of racism must be grounded in a sincere understanding of history,” Adam said. Rothman, Georgetown history professor and senior curator of slavery. archive.

“People need to know what happened,” Rothman told Catholic News Service. “If you don’t know what happened, and if you don’t know it in detail, I don’t think you can even imagine possibilities for reconciliation or redress today.”

The harmful effects of racism on American society and how racism is embedded in American government systems and churches has been a concern of Pope Francis and many American bishops.

This is a difficult subject for many Americans to talk about or even acknowledge and in the current American political climate there has been a push back from educational programs that teach the horrors of slavery, the continued enforced servitude among men and women of color after the Civil War and into the 20th century and persistent societal racism.

Some Republican politicians have expressed concern that this approach to history in schools will convince white people that they are inherently racist and that they should feel guilty for the benefits of their race.

Several US states have pushed for laws or other measures to restrict how race and racism can be taught in schools, a move that worries teachers’ unions and educators that such limits will minimize the role that Past injustices still have on society today.

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington — the only black cardinal in the United States — told CNS he doesn’t believe American society will ever be able to resolve its racial struggles if schools limit how they present the story.

Rothman pointed out that mid-twentieth-century textbooks did not adequately address the gruesome details of slavery, acknowledged that states that seceded from the union during the Civil War cited the institution of slavery as a reason to do so, or educated about continued oppression and racial violence throughout the 20th century.

Joseph Geeter, a black parishioner at St. Barbara Catholic Church in Philadelphia, doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that there’s controversy over how America’s racial history is taught in the classroom after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a white Minnesota police officer, an event that sparked racial justice protests across the country.

Geeter said he still experiences the effects of bigotry in the workplace, church and society and agrees the story can help skeptics of existing systemic racism see beyond a narrative that romanticized darker chapters of the past.

Dealing with the integral version of the past is essential to moving toward racial healing and equality, said Joe Ferrara, vice president of Georgetown University and chief of staff to the president of the university.

When Georgetown joined a coalition of colleges called Universities Studying Slavery in 2015, it was a small group of mostly Virginia schools, but had grown to 80 higher education institutions by 2022, Ferrara said. .

“More people are trying to engage with this story,” he said, “and that’s a good thing.”