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Reckoning with Slavery at Georgetown
I teach history at Georgetown University, a school where history matters. It’s the oldest Catholic university in the United States, and we celebrate that legacy through rituals such as reading the college’s charter at every graduation (Georgetown University 1815). But history is more complicated than the funhouse mirror version of it we encounter in the carnivals of historical memory. Despite its origins as a beacon of religious tolerance and republican liberty, Georgetown was built on the backs of enslaved people. Along with many other schools, Georgetown is beginning to reckon with that history, a microcosm of the paradox of America (Georgetown University, n.d.).
On April 18, 2017, the descendants of 272 enslaved people—whom Jesuit leaders sold from Maryland to Louisiana in 1838, using part of the proceeds to rescue Georgetown College from debt (Maryland Province Archives 1838)—gathered on stage and in the audience of Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. These descendants of the Georgetown University 272 (GU272) shared the stage with Georgetown president John J. DeGioia and Father Tim Kesicki, Society of Jesus (SJ), president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, who delivered historic apologies for their organizations’ histories of slavery. “We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned, and because we are profoundly sorry,” Father Kesicki said (Georgetown University 2017). It was a milestone in a long, unfinished journey of truth and reconciliation.
Recognizing Our History
In September 2015, President DeGioia formed a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to reflect on how the university should “acknowledge and recognize Georgetown’s historical relationship with the institution of slavery” (DeGioia 2015). I was a member of the group, which included faculty, staff, and students. The impetus was the reopening of the renovated Mulledy Hall, named after Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy, SJ, a president of Georgetown who orchestrated the sale of men, women, and children owned by the Maryland Jesuits. President DeGioia grasped that the moment was ripe for the Georgetown community to have a conversation about our history.
This history had not been a secret. Jesuit historians had written about it for a hundred years. Robert Emmett Curran’s The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University, published in 1993, describes the college’s connections to slavery in detail. American Studies faculty and students launched a pioneering digital history project in the 1990s to publish archival material related to Georgetown’s history of slavery. From 2014 to 2016, undergraduate history major Matthew Quallen (2016) wrote a series of articles for the student newspaper, sparking renewed interest in this history among students. Nevertheless, one surprising discovery of the Working Group was how few people knew about this history. That Georgetown and the Jesuits owned and sold slaves came as a shock to most people. Educating ourselves and others about our history became a priority.
What is our history? Georgetown was founded by a Catholic elite in Maryland whose wealth was based on slavery, which provided cheap labor for tobacco fields. The earliest records of Jesuit slaveholding in Maryland date to the 1710s, but the Maryland Jesuits had been part of a transatlantic slave economy since the 1500s. They justified their involvement on the grounds that slavery was an instrument for the Christianization of so-called heathen people.
By the 1830s, nearly three hundred enslaved people worked on Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland, whose profits were supposed to subsidize the education of white boys. In reality, their most profitable activity was probably the selling of people whose labor they no longer needed (Maryland Province Archives 1808). After a debate spanning two decades, the Jesuits got out of the business of running plantations with slave labor. But instead of emancipating the people they owned, they sold them to two planters in Louisiana for $115,000.
The college itself was a site of slave labor from the time it opened in 1789 until emancipation in the nation’s capital in 1862. One of the first enslaved people at Georgetown was a woman named Sukey (Georgetown University Archive 1792), and the last was Aaron Edmonson (Georgetown University Archive 1859). The $12 Edmonson earned each month went to his owner, Ann Green, who received $109.50 from the federal government when Edmonson was freed. Nobody repaid former slaves for the robbery of the fruits of their labor.
In 1814, twelve out of 102 people on campus were enslaved (Georgetown University Library 1814). They were owned by the Jesuits or rented from students’ families or local owners. They worked as carpenters, valets, blacksmiths, maids, and cooks.
Faculty and students at Georgetown accepted the slave economy and even endorsed it. The college Philodemic Society held debates about slavery, usually supporting the proslavery side. Father James Ryder, SJ, a two-time president of the school, condemned abolitionism, declaring “God is a God of order” (Georgetown Slavery Archive 1835). A strong majority of students and alumni who fought in the Civil War did so on the Confederate side. After the war, the school adopted blue and gray as its colors to signify sectional reconciliation. Blue and gray are still our colors.
Reckoning and Reconciliation
During the 2015–16 academic year, the Working Group strived to deepen the Georgetown community’s knowledge of this history. We put out a pamphlet with basic facts. We organized “conversation circles” to allow the university community to express diverse perspectives. A “teach-in” examined other efforts to come to terms with past racial injustice at home and abroad. A series of public events culminated in a weeklong symposium on slavery and its consequences, featuring distinguished scholars including historian Craig Steven Wilder. These events provided guidance to the Working Group and brought the university community into our process.
The conversation that President DeGioia launched took off in unexpected directions. Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Georgetown students protested in November 2015, forcing a change in the names of two buildings that had been named after Jesuit priests who orchestrated the sale, Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry, SJ. The Georgetown Memory Project, an independent nonprofit founded by alumnus Richard Cellini, began to track down descendants of the GU272. A New York Times story drew national attention to Georgetown’s reckoning with history and raised the issue of reparations (Swarns 2016).
The Working Group submitted our report to President DeGioia in May 2016 (Georgetown University 2016). After a historic trip to Louisiana and meetings with descendants, President DeGioia presented the report to the public in fall 2016. The report summarized Georgetown’s history of slavery and suggested steps forward. These included an apology, new names for the two buildings, support for further research and teaching about our history, “legacy” status in admissions for the descendants of the GU272, and—perhaps most importantly—collaboration with descendants in the task of reconciliation.
The events of April 2017 showed progress. Along with the apologies came the dedication of Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft Halls, formerly Mulledy and McSherry Halls. Hawkins was a patriarch of the GU272, and Becraft was a free woman of color who established one of the first schools for black girls in Washington, DC. Two GU272 descendants, Mélisande Short-Colomb and Shepherd Thomas, matriculated at Georgetown in fall 2017, and more are expected. At sixty-three, Short-Colomb is the oldest first-year student in Georgetown’s history, and one of the most indomitable. The Georgetown Slavery Archive (n.d.), which provides digital access to archival materials, continues to grow through student research. Many GU272 descendants have visited Georgetown’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections to see the sacramental registers and bills of sale and catch a glimpse of their ancestors.
As a historian of slavery at Georgetown, I direct the research on the Georgetown Slavery Archive, and I teach American Studies 272: Facing Georgetown’s History,open to junior American Studies majors. We read about the history and memory of slavery, speak with scholars and descendants, and trace the footprints of the GU272 from Maryland to Louisiana and from past to present. As a final project, students add to public knowledge by creating podcasts (American Studies Program 2018). I also collaborate with colleagues in film studies, art history, and theater, who are grappling with Georgetown’s history of slavery in creative ways. These projects include a student-produced video (Film and Media Studies Program 2017), a student proposal for a memorial to the GU272 (Art History Program 2016), and a commissioned play entitled The 272 (Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, n.d.).
Georgetown is one of many schools investigating their histories of slavery and connecting the past to the present. The Universities Studying Slavery consortium, started by the University of Virginia (2018), includes more than forty member institutions.
But Georgetown’s history does not matter just for those who work, teach, and learn at our school. As I was writing this essay, I received a phone call from a man who had just discovered his connection to the GU272 and was eager to learn more about his family’s history. The excitement in his voice spoke volumes.
American Studies Program. 2018. American Studies 272 podcasts. Georgetown University. https://soundcloud.com/search?q=Rothman%20AMST%20272.
Art History Program. 2016. “ARTH 354 Georgetown Memorial Proposal.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/211.
Curran, Robert Emmett. 1993. The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
DeGioia, John J. 2015. “Announcing the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.” September 24. https://president.georgetown.edu/messages/slavery-memory-reconciliation-working-group.
Film and Media Studies Program. 2017. The Good Work. Georgetown University. https://vimeo.com/channels/611435/215512837.
Georgetown Slavery Archive. n.d. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/.
———. 1835. “Proslavery Oration by Rev. James Ryder, SJ, August 30, 1835.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/88.
Georgetown University. n.d. “Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation.” http://slavery.georgetown.edu/.
———. 1815. “Charter of the University.” https://governance.georgetown.edu/charter.
———. 2016. Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to the President of Georgetown University. Washington, DC: Georgetown University. http://slavery.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/GU-WGSMR-Report-Web.pdf.
———. 2017. “Georgetown Apologizes for 1838 Sale of 272 Slaves, Dedicates Buildings.” April 18. https://www.georgetown.edu/news/liturgy-remembrance-contrition-hope-slavery.
Georgetown University Archive. 1792. “The College Hires Sukey, 1792–1797.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/70.
———. 1859. “The College Hires Enslaved Worker Aaron Edmonson, 1859–1862.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/108.
Georgetown University Library. 1814. “Total Number of Persons, 1814.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/24.
Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. n.d. The 272. Georgetown University. https://globallab.georgetown.edu/projects/the-272/.
Maryland Province Archives. 1808. “‘Dispose of Them’: Proceedings of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen, May 12, 1808.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/181.
———. 1838. “Articles of Agreement between Thomas F. Mulledy, of Georgetown, District of Columbia, of One Part, and Jesse Beatty and Henry Johnson, of the State of Louisiana, of the Other Part. 19th June 1838.” Georgetown Slavery Archive. http://slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu/items/show/1.
Quallen, Matthew. 2016. Archived articles. The Hoya. http://www.thehoya.com/author/matthew-quallen/.
Swarns, Rachel L. 2016. “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?” New York Times, April 16. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/us/georgetown-university-search-for-slave-descendants.html.
University of Virginia. 2018. “Universities Studying Slavery.” http://slavery.virginia.edu/universities-studying-slavery/.
Adam Rothman is a Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University.