Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
While historians have long known that the Society of Jesus was deeply involved in slaveholding and the slave trade globally, these historical accounts are usually told from the perspective of the Jesuits' management of enslaved people rather than through the experiences of the people enslaved to the Jesuits themselves. In order to rectify this elision, this dissertation brings to light the overlooked history of people enslaved to the Jesuits in the antebellum United States, particularly in Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alabama. Breaking down longstanding myths that people enslaved to Catholics experienced a more benign form of slavery, and that, as a result, they were contented with their condition and not motivated to resist their enslavement, it demonstrates how people enslaved to the Jesuits forged community, exerted agency over their faith, and enacted resistance in the face of brutality as they sustained Jesuit missionary and educational expansion west. Enslaved people took advantage of Catholic recognition of the sacraments and sacramental sponsorships to expand, strengthen, and protect their kin networks, tightening their relationships with blood relatives and bringing new kin into their fold through the witnesses they chose at marriages and the godparents they chose at baptisms. Within these networks, bondspeople collectively layered modes of resistance, both passive and active, using petitioning and pressure, appeals to their religious owners' moral values and precepts, escape, threats of violence, and the law and the courts to pressure the Jesuits for better conditions, for the return of their kin, and for their freedom. They took advantage of the increasingly segregated worship spaces their owners imposed on them to cultivate spaces of communal worship. As they faced further racial hostility in freedom and felt unwelcome in white parishes, they drew upon the church-centered communities they had developed in slavery to advocate for their own separate Black Catholic churches where they could worship free from prejudice. They carried the foundations of their faith, community networks, and advocacy they had forged in slavery with them as they transitioned to freedom, adapting them as they built new lives in Church and kin-centered communities in the face of slavery's morphing legacies of racism. Often gathering in the same neighborhoods in the regions surrounding where they had once been enslaved, they worked together to support one another and to advocate for more equal rights.
Schmidt, Kelly Lynn, "We Heard Sometimes Their Earnest Desire to be Free in a Free Country: Enslaved People, Jesuit Masters, and Negotiations for Freedom on American Borderlands, 1823-1930" (2021). Dissertations. 3902.
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Copyright Â© 2021 Kelly Lynn Schmidt
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