Georgetown Gets It Right
by

You have to expect that any institution that is a couple centuries old will have a few incidents in its past it would like to forget. Georgetown University is a case in point. But to the credit of the administrators and the members of the Society of Jesus — better known as the Jesuits — who founded and still staff the college, Georgetown is owning up to a particularly disgraceful event that occurred back in the 1830s.

At its founding in 1789, Georgetown College was the first Catholic institution of higher education in the United States. The faculty was comprised of Catholic priests who had been members of the Society of Jesus, until Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits in 1773 (it’s a long story). In spite of that ecclesiastical glitch, Georgetown is also considered the first Jesuit college in the United States.

To support the school and their other work in America, the Jesuits relied on income generated by their plantations. The plantations were worked by slaves — about 400 of them at the time Georgetown welcomed its first freshman class — which made the Jesuits one of the largest slaveholders in Maryland.

By the 1830s, Father Thomas Mulledy, S.J., superior of all Jesuits in the United States, and Father William McSherry, rector, or president, of Georgetown College, came to the conclusion that the plantations were no longer generating the level of income necessary to fund the parishes, schools, and the other religious activities staffed by their order. The question arose, if the Jesuits were scaling back on their plantations, what would happen to the plantations’ slaves?

Some members of the Jesuit community, as well as some lay Catholics, argued that the slaves should be freed. Such a thing was not unheard of — there were communities of free people of color in the North and the South. Furthermore, Jesuit authorities in Rome favored emancipating the Jesuits’ slaves. But Father Mulledy was a man of his time and not as forward-thinking as some of his Jesuit brothers and some of the Catholics in the pews. In letters to Father Jan Roothaan, the superior of the Jesuits worldwide, Mulledy argued that it was neither practical or financially sound to free the slaves.

Perhaps Roothaan felt he hadn’t enough information on slavery as it existed in the United States. Perhaps he placed too much trust in Father Mulledy’s on-the-ground assessment of the situation. Whatever his reasons, Roothaan granted his permission for the slaves to be sold, but he stipulated three conditions that were not debatable: families could not be split up; the slaves could only go to masters who would permit them to continue practicing their Catholic faith, with access to priests, the Mass, and the sacraments; and the money generated by the sale could not be used to reduce the debt at Georgetown or to begin new construction projects at the college — it was to be invested to generate income the Jesuits needed for their work in America.

Mulledy ignored all three of these conditions. Slave families were split up, with spouses separated and children taken from their parents. As for the new masters, no care was taken to find Catholic slaveholders, or at least masters who would permit their new slaves to continue to live as Catholics. And finally, the income generated from the sale was used to pay down Georgetown’s debt. In all, the Jesuits sold 272 of their slaves. The sale brought in $115,000 — approximately $3.3 million in today’s money.

When Father Roothaan learned of the sale and its aftermath — which he characterized as “tragic and disgraceful” — he summoned Mulledy to Rome. Mulledy’s explanations didn’t satisfy his superior; Roothaan stripped him of his offices, refused to let him return to the United States, and packed him off to work with a Jesuit community in France.

In fairness to the Jesuits, throughout the 18th century and up until the Union victory in the Civil War, Catholic religious communities, as well as Catholic laity, owned slaves. The late Father Cyprian Davies, O.S.B., for decades the foremost authority on the history of African-American Catholics in America, tells us that the Capuchins in Louisiana — members of a religious community that traced their origins to St. Francis of Assisi — owned slaves. When the Vincentian Fathers opened their seminary in Perryville, Missouri, the bishop of Louisiana lent them some of his slaves to work as household staff. The cloistered Carmelite nuns of Port Tobacco, Maryland, owned slaves. So did the Dominicans, the Ursulines, the Sisters of Loreto, and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.

Then, in 1839 — a year after the Georgetown sale — Pope Gregory XVI issued a document condemning the slave trade and forbidding all Catholic clergy, religious, and laity from owning slaves, from buying or selling slaves, or even from expressing approval of the institution of slavery. In response, the Catholic bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, John England, wrote a series of open letters in which he tap-danced around the pope’s condemnation to “prove” to his fellow Southerners that Gregory was not an abolitionist.

This week, the Catholic News Agency reported, in a lengthy article, how the university administrators and the Jesuit community at Georgetown are addressing this shameful moment in the history of their school and their society. Among those who worked with Georgetown and the Jesuits to find suitable ways to make amends were descendants of those 272 sold-off slaves.

One of Washington, D.C.’s auxiliary bishops, Barry Knestout, and Father Robert Hussey, S.J., the superior of the Jesuits in Maryland and the surrounding region, led members of the Georgetown community and descendants of the slaves in a prayer service they called a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope.” The title is clunky, but the sentiment is right on the money.

In addition to prayer, Georgetown is atoning for the 1838 sale in other tangible ways. Descendants of the slaves who apply for admission to Georgetown will be eligible for financial aid, and their applications will receive “legacy status,” in other words, they will receive a bit of an edge in the admissions process because they and their families are considered part of Georgetown’s extended family. And two buildings on campus, which had been named for Father Mulledy and Father McSherry, have been rededicated — one to honor Isaac Hawkins, a 65-year-old slave whose name appears first on the list of those sold, and the other to honor Anne Marie Becraft, known as Sister Mary Aloysius after she joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Sister Mary Aloysius was a free woman of color who in 1827, before she entered the convent, opened a school near Georgetown College for the education of black girls. Finally, there will be a monument on campus honoring the memory of the 272.

How to make amends for centuries of slavery in America is something of a historical minefield. If you remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park, is your next step calling for the dismantling of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial? Where do you draw the line? It appears to me that Georgetown got it tight. Expressions of sorrow; prayer; new, meaningful dedications on campus; a permanent memorial; and a program that recognizes the descendants of the 272 as members of the Georgetown community. I write often enough about colleges that revel in their silly seasons, so it is refreshing to see a school that has a taken a thoughtful response to a painful, disgraceful period in its history.

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