Since Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library opened in 1970, generations of students studied at that main campus library, where the words above the entrance read: “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free.”
Those words from the Gospel of St. John were also quoted by a working group of Georgetown University’s faculty, students, alumni, staff and Jesuit priests in the report they issued in the summer of 2016 on that institution’s historic ties to slavery. The group offered recommendations on how to acknowledge that past and how to seek reconciliation and work for justice in the present and future.
A searing, shocking truth spurred that effort: in 1838, the Jesuit priest leading Georgetown and another Jesuit priest leading the order’s Maryland province authorized the sale of 272 slaves who worked on Jesuit plantations in Southern Maryland, and the proceeds were partially used to pay off debts at the university, which was then in financial trouble.
As a condition of the sale, the Jesuits had agreed not to break up families, but that condition was not followed, and the sold slaves ended up in plantations in Louisiana which historians have found were known for harsh working conditions.
“The greatest liberation will only come when we tell the most painful and deepest truths,” said Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor in Georgetown’s Department of History and one of 16 members of the university’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.
Chatelain was among four panelists who participated in an Oct. 12 dialogue sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life on Georgetown’s legacy of slavery and its implications for the present and future.
John Carr, the initiative’s founder and director, moderated the dialogue and noted at the outset that the university’s Catholic identity and Jesuit mission can shape its response as it reckons with that historic tragedy.
“Great evil was done, but great good can come from that, because of who we are, what we believe and how we act,” he said.
On Sept. 1, John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, announced Georgetown’ response to the working group’s recommendations, which he said will include renaming two university buildings formerly named for the Jesuits involved in the sale of the slaves; and creating a living memorial to the 272 children, women and men sold from the Jesuit plantations in 1838, and to the other enslaved people whose labor benefited the university.
Historians believe that slaves helped build some of the older buildings at Georgetown, just as slaves helped build the U.S. Capitol and White House. Some students brought slaves to campus, and other slaves were rented.
Before slavery was outlawed in the District of Columbia in 1862, a thriving slave trade existed in the nation’s capital.
DeGioia said the university is committed to engaging the slaves’ descendants in its efforts to memorialize their ancestors and in its “journey of reconciliation,” which will include the descendants’ families receiving the same admissions benefits as those received by other members of the Georgetown community, including faculty, staff and alumni.
The working group had recommended that “the university offer a formal, public apology for its historical relationship with slavery,” and DeGioia announced that Georgetown, along with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, will offer a Mass of Reconciliation to seek forgiveness for the sale of the slaves, whom he said, “we should regard as members of our community.”
Georgetown’s president, noting that the working group’s recommendations had been part of a two-year process of events and conversations related to racial injustice in America, said the university would use its academic resources to address the continuing impact of slavery, segregation and racism.
He said that impact includes disparities for minorities in economic and educational opportunities, health care, law enforcement and incarceration rates.
At the Oct. 12 dialogue, James Benton, the Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation Fellow at Georgetown University, said, “We’re now trying to transition from understanding of the past, to trying to think how to apply it to the present and future… We’re at the start of a very long process.”
Benton said that when he was teaching a history class six years ago, he told his students that the Jesuits owned slaves, and they were stunned to hear about the order’s 1838 sale of the slaves from the Maryland plantations, with the proceeds helping to relieve their university’s debts.
Carr asked another dialogue panelist – Jesuit Father Matthew Carnes – how such a thing could happen in the Society of Jesus.
“It’s one I asked myself often,” said Carnes, who is an associate professor in Georgetown’s Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service and was a member of the working group.
The Society of Jesus, which sponsored Georgetown when it was founded as the nation’s first Catholic college in 1789 and continue to sponsor it today, owned slaves on their Maryland plantations in colonial times through the years leading up to the Civil War and eventual government-mandated emancipation.
Carnes noted that the two Jesuits involved in the sale – Father Thomas Mulledy, Georgetown’s president who by 1838 switched jobs with Father William McSherry to become head of the U.S. Jesuits – “were very much a product of their times,” when slavery was an entrenched part of the American economy, and when many people, even religious leaders, lacked the moral vision to oppose the practice.
Those two Jesuits, he added, took the same vows that he and other Jesuits of today have taken, and it has made him wonder, “What are we blind to today, what is escaping our vision?”
Georgetown has announced that the campus building once known as Mulledy Hall and temporarily renamed Freedom Hall will be permanently renamed Isaac Hall, after the name of the 65-year-old man who was the first listed on the agreement for the Jesuits’ sale of the slaves in 1838.
The university’s former McSherry Hall, renamed Remembrance Hall, will be called Anne Marie Becraft Hall, for a free woman of color who established a school for black girls in Georgetown and who later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first religious community in the United States formed for women of African descent.
Another panelist at the dialogue, theologian Diana Hayes, said that too often, the history of black Catholics has been hidden, ignored or disregarded in the Church.
She said Georgetown’s efforts to address its past of slavery and its efforts at seeking reconciliation made her feel “overjoyed… this was very close to home.”
“It was like a weight had been taken off my shoulders. I had been talking about this since 1988,” said Hayes, now an emerita professor of systematic theology at Georgetown who began teaching there that year.
“For me, it was a sigh of relief, to realize someone is finally listening. I often felt like a voice crying in the wilderness.”
The institution of slavery, and continuing racism, run counter to the Catholic belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, she said.
Hayes, the first African American woman to earn a pontifical degree in theology, has written numerous books on black Catholics in the United States.
“One thing I kept puzzling over, if we’re all created in God’s image and likeness, why are some beings seen as lesser?” she asked, adding, “Some African Americans still feel they’re not treated as human beings.”
After the dialogue, Ayodele Aruleba, a senior at Georgetown majoring in government who was a member of the working group, said, “I think this is just the beginning,” adding that he believes the university’s most important work lies ahead, as it engages the members of its community in addressing the contemporary legacies of race and racism in this country, especially as it relates to inequalities faced by people of color.
The university has pledged to memorialize the names and stories of the slaves, but Chatelain said its commitment to work for justice will be more critical than erecting a statue or monument.
“What keeps me going is the realization that when we carry out the best of what the Jesuits represent, we’re laying the groundwork for this university, this country and this society to be better,” Benton said.
Following the working group’s recommendations, DeGioia announced that Georgetown will establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies. Earlier in 2016, he announced that Georgetown was creating a new Department of African American Studies and would establish a center focused on racial justice.
During a question and answer period, a woman student said that in the Catholic tradition, seeking reconciliation “is really holy work,” and she asked the panelists if it had affected their own faith.
Carnes said it made him reflect on the meaning of reconciliation, and understand that it can only be done with God’s help, and with the other person or people involved. “We can only do it if we trust in God,” he said.
Chatelain said that when a university or any other community confronts such a history and seeks reconciliation, it’s vital to “meet people where they are and journey together.”
The educator, who has researched a wide variety of issues in African American history, said it was especially moving for her and two other members of the working group to have lunch that Sunday with a group of about 40 of the descendants, who had attended Mass together at St. Augustine Church in Washington, which was founded by free women and men of color in 1858.
The Jesuits in Maryland had baptized their slaves, and an independent group researching descendants of the slaves from the sale that benefitted Georgetown found that many remain Catholic, generations later. DeGioia has traveled to Louisiana and Washington state to meet with some of the descendants.
Meeting some of the descendants earlier that week and hearing the stories of their families and witnessing their faith was the “most gratifying moment” in her time at Georgetown, Chatelain said.
“It was a family reunion. It’s a group of people who allowed us to engage with them,” she said. “…It’s a real privilege and honor. The amount of grace these families have shown Georgetown is really inspiring.”