Georgetown announces steps to make amends for 1838 slave sale

By Adelaide Mena

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Georgetown University. Credit: ehpien via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) filter added.

Nearly 200 years after hosting a slave sale on campus in order to pay off school debt, Georgetown University has announced its intention of making amends to the descendants of those impacted by the sale, as well as to the broader community.

Along with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States, Georgetown will offer a Mass of Reconciliation for the school’s actions.

The university will also give descendants of the slave sale preferential consideration, treating them with the same consideration as the children of faculty, staff and alumni.

Furthermore, the school will create a memorial to the people sold in the sale. It will rename two residence halls – originally named for the Jesuit priests who orchestrated the sale – after Isaac Hawkins, the first man sold in the 1838 sale, and Anne Marie Becraft, a local African American free woman from Washington D.C. who worked to found a school for African American girls and who later became a religious sister with the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore.   

“This community participated in the institution of slavery,” said Georgetown University President John DeGioia in a September 1 presentation. “This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here,” he continued. “We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”

But now, the president said, the Georgetown community must recognize its past actions and make amends for them. “As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history. We must acknowledge it.”

Reconciliation efforts will be presented “within the framework of the Catholic tradition,” DeGioia stated. “Our moral agency must be channeled to undo this damage.”

The September 1 presentation described the findings of a recent report on Georgetown University’s relationship with slavery and the impact of those actions, along with recommendations for moving forward.

The 104-page report was compiled by a 16-member Working Group, which began its research efforts in September 2015. The group has also compiled a digital archive of historical documents relating to the sale and other slaves owned by the Maryland Province of the Jesuit order, held discussions with the Georgetown community, and reached out to the descendants of slaves sold in the 1838 sale.

The sale of 272 slaves owned by the Maryland Province of Jesuits was organized by two priests, Fr. Thomas Mulledy, SJ, who was head of the Jesuit order in the U.S., and the Fr. William McSherry, SJ, to pay off some of the school’s debts. The slaves were sold for $115,000, which is equivalent to about $3.3 million today. Most of the slaves were sold to owners in Louisiana, where, according to the school’s report, “they labored under dreadful conditions on cotton and sugar plantations.”

The first slave listed on the bill of sale was a 65-year-old man named Isaac Hawkins.

The Vatican placed conditions on the sale, ordering that families not be separated, that the money not be used to pay off the school’s debt, and that the religious practice of the slaves – many of whom were baptized Catholics – be respected.   

Fr. Mulledy met none of these conditions, separating families and using their sale to support the school. In addition, investigators had found that slaves on the plantation did not have access to a Catholic church for worship after they reached Louisiana.

While the prominent members of the province were engaged in orchestrating the sale, some Jesuits at the time helped some of the slaves escape during the sale and transfer.

Because of the scandal, Fr. Mulledy ended up resigning from his post as head of the order in the U.S., and was called to Rome to defend his actions to the superior of the Jesuit order or face dismissal. Fr. Mulledy was allowed to remain in the order, and was allowed to return to the United States in 1843, founding the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts upon his return and later serving a second term as the president of Georgetown University.

The report notes that while the sale was one of the best-documented of the time, due to the presence and transfer of sacramental records, many of the slaves were sold again, and their subsequent sales and transfer have made it difficult to find out the conditions that they lived in and the fate of them and some of their descendants.

Regardless of the state of the records, the report reinforced the brutal and dehumanizing reality of slavery in the early United States and explained that Georgetown University, the Jesuit Order, the city of Georgetown and many other early American Catholic figures all benefited directly from the institution of slavery.

The report also stressed the importance of wrestling with the truth of the university’s history, as well as the moral implications of cooperating with the institution of slavery and its long-reaching consequences of structural injustice and racism that persist to this day – both within the Church and within society at large.

“Neither love for Georgetown nor any manner of local contextualization can begin to justify the actions that were taken,” the report reads. “Indeed the early nineteenth-century context included less shameful, even good alternatives that were rejected and moral resources that were neglected.”

“The opposition to the sale, the scandal it caused, and the abrupt resignation of Fr. Mulledy are a few of the indirect indicators of how real the other options for the Maryland province and Georgetown College were in 1838.”

“In the face of such wrongdoing, contrition is imperative, and the goal of reconciliation – the healing of estrangement between people and the restoration of friendship – is indispensable,” the report stressed.

These efforts for reconciliation and contrition are framing Georgetown’s steps going forward, President DeGioia said. “We can be blocked by our past or we can be strengthened by recognition and reconciliation with it,” he told the assembly of students, faculty, staff and descendants of the slaves sold.  

The university’s past, he said, should be seen as a “touchstone” as the school moves forward, along with the input from the descendants of people held by the Maryland Jesuits as slaves, to seek reparative justice and to repair the relationships within the Georgetown community.

DeGioia pointed to the example of St. John Paul II in “seeking forgiveness and reconciliation” as one model and resource out of many from the Catholic faith that the school will draw upon in continuing its steps towards reconciliation for its actions.

Georgetown will also engage more deeply with modern issues whose roots are found in the institution of slavery.

While important steps forward, like the Civil Rights Act, have been made, DeGioia said, “we still live with the implications of the original failure to address the evil that framed the founding of our nation” as well as the continued discrimination of Jim Crow.

He pointed to gaps in life expectancy, health disparities, housing discrimination and disproportionate poverty rates affecting African American communities as part of this continued legacy of slavery in the United States.

This continued engagement with social issues and disparities impacting African-American communities is especially important for universities to grapple with, the president said, because of the American university’s role in constructing the idea of race in the United States.  

“Scholars of our universities had the effect of justifying the enslavement of our fellow human beings,” DeGioia explained. “And while all of this may have happened two centuries ago, we live with the consequences today.”

Thus, DeGioia stressed, the publication of the report and apology of the school “does not bring an end” to Georgetown’s involvement in the issue but instead is “opening a chapter” of new involvement on issues of race and slavery’s legacy.  

“This is a moment we must seize,” he said. “There is an urgency to address this issue now. We will never fulfill the promise of this university, we will never fulfill the promise of this nation, we will never fulfill the promise of each one of us as long as this legacy is unreconciled.”

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