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The Florida Catholic

Bishop Perry on Juneteenth: 'We must remain relentless' in pursuit of 'equality and equity'

As the nation marked Juneteenth, the head of the U.S. bishops' anti-racism committee called for renewed efforts to combat the historical legacy of slavery and racism.

"We must remain relentless in our pursuit of both equality and equity," said Bishop Joseph N. Perry, retired auxiliary bishop of Chicago and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Racism and the USCCB Subcommittee on African American Affairs.

Known as the nation's second Independence Day, Juneteenth -- declared a federal holiday in 2021 -- commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to more than 250,000 enslaved Black persons in Galveston, Texas. The proclamation, an executive decree by President Abraham Lincoln that freed those enslaved in rebelling Confederate States, was followed by the 13th Amendment, ratified by Congress in December 1865 and formally abolishing slavery.

In a video message posted June 18 to the USCCB's YouTube channel, Bishop Perry said that "Juneteenth is a time to commemorate the end of slavery, to reflect on the history and legacy of racism in our country, as well as to underscore our commitment as religiously grounded people to do better."

The bishop said that "history is a powerful venue for reflecting on our society's evolution," and "can serve as a guidebook to our present, as well as a compass pointing to our future.

"Our nation for some time now has been engaged in a reassessment of racial equality," said Bishop Perry. "We must remain relentless in a pursuit of creating a society where we respect one another as persons with fundamental dignity, made in the image and likeness of God."

He noted that "there is still work to be done" in healing the scars of racism in the U.S.

The transatlantic slave trade spanned the 16th to the 19th centuries and saw anywhere from 10 million to more than 15 million Africans captured and transported to the Americas, chained together in unsanitary, oxygen-deprived ship holds and subjected to sexual abuse and other atrocities. An estimated 15%-25% of those enslaved died on the transatlantic voyages, which lasted from a few weeks to months.

The exploitation of slave labor was fundamental to the economic development of the U.S., particularly in the nation's South. Although President Thomas Jefferson enacted a law banning the importation of slaves effective 1808, slavery persisted through smuggling and through the "breeding" of enslaved people already in the U.S., with girls as young as 13 raped for this purpose. Excruciating labor, beatings, psychological and sexual abuse, family separation and denial of basic human rights were all part of the lived experience of enslaved persons.

"The impact of slavery and its results is still experienced across our country today, including through disparate access to health care, quality education and economic opportunity," said Bishop Perry. "We've even had to take a hard look at our church's participation in this sinful history."

Emerging scholarship has increasingly shown the significant extent to which Catholic dioceses, institutions, clergy and lay people in the U.S. participated in slaveholding.

Last year, Georgetown University and the Society of Jesus announced the allocation of $27 million toward reparations for the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people to save the university. Some religious orders and dioceses relied on slave labor for the building construction and daily operations; Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget, the first bishop of Louisville, Kentucky, bequeathed his slaves to his successor. Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized Black Catholic priest in the U.S., was born into slavery in 1854 with his parents having been purchased by Catholics based in Missouri.

In his video message, Bishop Perry invited faithful to "learn more about how we can address the sin of racism" by studying the USCCB's 2018 pastoral letter against racism, "Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love."

That letter cautions against complacency regarding racism, noting that "with the positive changes that arose from the civil rights movement and related civil rights legislation, some may believe that racism is no longer a major affliction of our society -- that it is only found in the hearts of individuals who can be dismissed as ignorant or unenlightened.”

"But racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart," the letter states.

Other ways of honoring Juneteenth "might be to support a local Black business, or worship at a Black Catholic church in your diocese," said Bishop Perry in his message.

"No matter what you choose to do, we all have a role to play in building a better church and society today, and for future generations," he said.