In 1919, a mob of several thousand people dragged a Black man named Will Brown from an Omaha courthouse. He had been accused of raping a white woman, but never given a trial. He was beaten, hanged, shot over 100 times, and his body burned before a jeering crowd, contributing to the gruesome photo history of race in this country.
During Holy Week, we witnessed the beginning of the trial of George Floyd’s accused killer.
Floyd died while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes as the handcuffed man lay prostrate on the street. This death was captured for history as well.
Floyd’s death, one of a string of Black deaths suffered during encounters with law enforcement, leaves the question of guilt in the hands of jurors. Brown and Floyd remind us that Jesus’ own brutal death was performed at the hands of the authorities, both civil and religious, but a mob also played a role in demanding his execution.
I live in Omaha, and I’m participating in an eight-week program called Faith and Racial Healing: Embracing Truth, Justice and Restoration. Offered by JustFaith Ministries, the course examines our country’s long and torturous treatment of Blacks, from the first enslaved person brought to our fledgling colonies to the present day.
What’s hardest to examine is the role that Christianity, and our own faith, played in this sorrowful history.
The transport of millions of Africans to the new colonies in the Americas was a transaction built on greed. The crops were lucrative but labor intensive. The slave trade itself was economically rewarding.
Never mind the fact that human beings were packed into ships like inanimate cargo, resting on planks one above the other where they sailed in terror, darkness and filth, awash in their own and others’ bodily fluids. Millions died, many by suicide.
Catholic individuals, institutions and universities owned slaves and found excuses: Africans were “uncivilized” and in need of conversion.
History, of course, is replete with slavery. But this vast American enterprise offered something rather unique: Generations were kept enslaved, millions bred to be free labor in perpetuity. Families were separated, humans marched to slave markets, chained and naked like so many cattle. White slave owners abused Black women freely; the offspring of these rapes added to the bottom line.
The end of the Civil War brought emancipation, but brief years of hope and freedom ended in the brutality of Jim Crow and American homegrown terrorism. Voter suppression, economic deprivation, housing redlining, strict segregation — these lasted well into the 1960s and in many ways plague us today.
Will Brown was one of over 4,000 Black Americans, men and women, to be lynched in our history. We must ask ourselves, how deeply embedded is this generational trauma in the lives of our Black neighbors today? How willing are we to teach our history? How much would we prefer to forget?
The Jesuits in the U.S. have unveiled plans for a “truth and reconciliation” initiative in partnership with descendants of people once enslaved by their order, pledging to raise $100 million within five years with a goal of reaching $1 billion in pursuit of racial justice and racial healing. It’s the largest financial pledge from a U.S. religious institution seeking to make amends.
How will this work? Stayed tuned. But it’s an honest and positive beginning.
Often, when horrible events happen, we say, “This is not who we are.” But we must acknowledge our history. This is part of who we are. We learn the greatness of American history, but we also must know our sin.