Jerome Spears started his mission to reclaim his family’s past in 1979 after watching the television mini-series “Roots.” A newspaper article got Negest Rucker digging deeper into her lineage. During the pandemic, both found themselves united in an effort to make sure the stories of their ancestors are properly shared.

The stories of Black Marylanders like Spears and Rucker will be told in the PBS documentary “Finding Us,” about those who are descendants of those enslaved by Jesuits. The documentary is part of PBS Reel South Season 9 which posted online today, and will air locally on television Monday, April 29, at 9 p.m. on MPT. There will also be a 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. showing.

The two are part of the newly formed Descendants of Jesuit Enslavement Historical and Genealogical Society, a group comprised of about 50 Black residents throughout the country who are focused on documenting, preserving and disseminating the full history of Jesuit enslavement in the U.S. Unlike other efforts, this is different because the work will be done and told through the actual descendants. The society will initially focus on descendants in Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland and Louisiana.

Although a majority of recent attention has been focused on the 1838 sale of 272 African Americans by Jesuit priests to plantations in Louisiana to sustain operations of what is now Georgetown University, this group wants the public to have a broader understanding of Jesuit enslavement, they say.

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Until now, the story was relegated to Jesuit involvement with institutions such as Georgetown University, Loyola University or singular sales. The formation of the genealogical society shows the broader role that Maryland Jesuits had in the institution of slavery, their slave-trading practices, and the Catholic families that financed them and the broader Roman Catholic Church, according to the group.

By becoming a nonprofit, the society will better be able to shoulder the costs and harness the resources necessary to continue uncovering more information about the history of enslaved Africans in this country.

“We recognize there is a need to further explore the full scope of Jesuit slaveholding and to uplift the descendants of those whose history has not yet been uncovered,” said Rucker, a 46-year-old Odenton resident and vice president of the Jesuit genealogical society. She added that it is important that the descendants are the “arbiters” of these stories. “While much has been made of those enslaved at Jesuit missions, not enough attention has been given to those who were enslaved by individual priests or those who were enslaved through sharing agreements with other Catholic orders.”

Negest Rucker, a 46-year-old Odenton resident and vice president of the Descendants of Jesuit Enslavement Historical and Genealogical Society. (courtesy of Negest Rucker)

Rucker’s ancestors were enslaved on the White Marsh and St. Inigoes Plantations owned by Jesuits in Bowie and St. Mary’s County. One of Rucker’s ancestor’s, Louisa Mahoney, was supposed to be included in the 1838 sale, but escaped and hid before the ship sailed, and remained enslaved by the Jesuits until emancipation.

Spears, a 68-year-old Ellicott City resident, said he has been transferring past audio interviews with family members and combining that oral history with additional research and DNA testing to create a “paper trail” to his family’s history “generation by generation.”

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He’s discovered that his grandmother’s grandparents were enslaved on two plantations in Maryland — one on the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland and the other on the Rosedale Manor, which is now known as Greenwell State Park.

His great-great-grandmother was owned by the Carroll family as a cook, nurse, and personal maid to Elizabeth Carroll. His great-great-grandfather was the driver for the Neale family at the Rosedale Manor, 15 miles away.

The two met and were eventually granted permission to marry — even though they were forced to live on separate plantations. This remained the case even after having children. The two were not able to live together until slavery ended. But the damage had been done, and many members of their families were shipped off to Louisiana as demand for tobacco farming in Maryland slowed and sugar production rose in Louisiana.

A virtual meeting of the Descendants of Jesuit Enslavement Historical and Genealogical Society, the first descendant-led organization focused on documenting, preserving, and interpreting the full history of Jesuit enslavement in the U.S. through the lens of descendants. (courtesy of Carla Willis)

Spears contends that without slavery in this country, which allowed for the nation’s development without having to compensate for labor, the United States never would have developed into a superpower.

“It was codified in law. People were treated as fugitives,” Spears said. “If someone had the audacity to run away, there were laws on the books. The whole infrastructure was stood up and put in place to maintain the whole institution. Many will argue that many of those foundations are here today.”

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Ultimately, members of the group want to increase discussions and education about the history of their ancestors. Rucker said members of the society have a number of thoughts about reparations, ranging from financial compensation to educational opportunities.

“We believe that descendants are not a monolith and have different ideas,” she said, adding that because she is not Catholic, she would not want to send her children to a Catholic school.

The documentary “Finding Us” will look at efforts over the past four years of the society to continue its research and mission to educate.

“I think that it is powerful. I think that it speaks to the pain and the trauma associated with trying to find out what happened to your people,” Rucker said of the film. “But also the joy in finding your people today.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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