Georgetown University, Jesuits apologize for roles in sale of slaves

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard


WASHINGTON (CNS) — Georgetown
University and the Society of Jesus’ Maryland province apologized April 18 for
their roles in the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved individuals for the university’s

More than 100 descendants
attended a morning “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope” that
the university created in partnership with descendants, the Archdiocese of
Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States.

“Today the Society of Jesus, who
helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and
mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly
sinned,” said Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference
of Canada and the United States, during the liturgy. “We pray with you today
because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry.”

The event took place the day
after the District of Columbia marked Emancipation Day, which celebrates the
emancipation of slaves in Washington April 16, 1862. This year, the local
holiday was moved to April 17 because the actual day fell on Easter Sunday.

In early April, Georgetown
announced plans for the liturgy and a renaming ceremony for two buildings on
campus previously named for priests who sold women, children and men into
slavery for financial gain in 1838.

Jesuit Father Thomas Mulledy, as
Georgetown president, authorized the transaction, and Jesuit Father William
McSherry also was involved in the 1838 sale and in other slave sales.

Mulledy Hall was renamed after
Isaac Hawkins, the first enslaved person listed in the sale documents. McSherry
Hall is now named after Anne Marie Becraft, a teacher and free woman of color
who established one of the first schools for black girls in the District of
Columbia. She later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence.

Sandra Green Thomas, a
descendant of the slaves and president of the GU272 Descendants Association,
spoke at length at the liturgy about the 272 enslaved people, her ancestors and
her Catholic faith.

“The ability to transcend the
realities of this life in this country has been a necessary tool in the
survival kit of my people,” she said. “For the 272, I believe that their
Catholic faith enabled them to transcend. No matter how incongruous their
existence was with the gospel of God’s love and protection, they clung to their

President John J.
DeGioia of Georgetown also spoke during the liturgy, saying that “slavery remains the
original evil of our republic.”

The university “was
complicit in” that evil, “a sin that tore apart families,” he
said. “Through great violence, (it) denied and rejected the dignity and
humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers. We lay this truth bare — in
sorrowful apology and communal reckoning.”

Jesuit Father Robert Hussey, provincial
of his order’s Maryland province, and DeGioia met with descendants in the

Karran Harper Royal, another
descendant, thanked Georgetown for its steps
toward acknowledging its ties with slavery, particularly the students who took
their concerns about the university’s history to the administration in 2015.

“The actions of Georgetown
students have placed all of us on a journey together toward honoring our
enslaved ancestors by working toward healing and reconciliation,” she said.
“Our history has shown us that the vestiges of slavery are a continuum that
began with the kidnapping of our people from our motherland to keeping them in
bondage with the brutality of American chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation ‘
the school-to-prison pipeline and the over-incarceration of people of color.”

Other events included
opportunities for members of the descendant community to connect with one
another and with Jesuits through a private vigil the evening of April 17, a
descendant-only dinner April 18 and tours of the Maryland plantation where
their ancestors were enslaved.

DeGioia and other university
officials have met with some descendants of the slaves on various occasions and
they have had access to historical materials regarding the sale of their

Some of the families sold
included adults and children the Jesuits had baptized. On March 12, The New
York Times published a photo, the only known image, that an archivist in
Thibodaux, Louisiana, found of one of the slaves sold by the Jesuits. His name
was Frank Campbell and the story accompanying the photo said the slave was sold
out of St. Inigoes plantation in Maryland, named after St. Ignatius. He had
kept ties to the Catholic Church after gaining his freedom, the story said.

The liturgy and building rededications
were recommendations of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and
Reconciliation in September 2016. The group, which included
faculty, students, alumni and descendants of slaves, had suggested the
university offer some form of reparative outreach as well as a meaningful
financial commitment.

“Our work as a group was to help
tear down the walls, the walls of mystery and silence and (the) unknown
surrounding Georgetown’s historical ties to the institution of slavery,” said
working group member Connor Maytnier at the dedication.

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