In the past few months, the history of the slaves owned by the Jesuits who ran Georgetown University in its early years has been the source of intense discussion. The conversation generated articles that landed on the front page of The New York Times and in other newspapers. Central to the story was the historical evidence indicating that Jesuits had sold slaves in order to “save” Georgetown during a financial crisis. Less reported was that a group of faculty, students and members of the administration at the school had been studying the legacy of the slave-owning since the previous summer. Recently, I interviewed David Collins, S.J., chairman of the group, about the complex legacy of Georgetown’s Jesuits. Father Collins is professor of history at Georgetown.
Father Collins, can you describe the genesis and the goals of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation?
A number of intersecting dynamics and motivations led Georgetown University’s president, Dr. John J. DeGioia, to convene the Working Group (which I’ll call the “W.G.”) in late summer of 2015: the university’s desire to more deeply and effectively address the abiding, systemic racial injustices and social inequalities in our nation; its desire to address the manifestations of such dynamics in its own community; its desire for a more complete understanding of the school’s Jesuit history; and the example of other universities fruitfully undertaking an exploration of their own histories in this regard.
The immediate impetus behind the formation of the W.G. corresponded to the repurposing into a student residence of a building named after a Jesuit who organized the sale of the Jesuit slaves in 1838, Thomas Mulledy, S.J. Against the explicit instructions of the Jesuits’ superior in Rome, Father Mulledy used some of the revenues from the sale to pay off the mounting, debilitating debt at Georgetown. The most well-known of the W.G.’s tasks was to evaluate whether the building should continue to be so named.
More broadly, we were asked to make recommendations on how best to acknowledge and recognize the university’s historical relationship to the institution of slavery, to examine and interpret the history of certain sites on the campus (starting with Mulledy Hall) and to convene events and opportunities for dialogue on these issues.
Was this history well known by the broader Georgetown community?
No. There were some who knew all of the history, some who knew parts of it and an awful lot who knew none of it. Knowing or not knowing the history also did not correlate to age or to status or length of time at the university.
I’ll admit, this surprised me. The amount that’s been written about Jesuit slaveholding in the United States is quite substantial. Some of it dates back more than a century. Most of the research in the last 50 years has come out of Georgetown. While some of the scholarship might be considered too technical for general readership, that scholarship inspired more accessible writings in newspapers. The information in the first New York Times article in April, for example, was largely drawn from the research of two Jesuit historians–R. Emmett Curran and Thomas Murphy—who published their findings in the 1980s and in the 2000s. The American Studies Program on campus also developed a fantastic online presence for the archival materials in the late ’90s that was much accessed by teachers and genealogical researchers until last year. [It has since been supplanted by the Georgetown Slavery Archive.]
Two things are operative here. First, the population turnover on a university campus is both big and fast. Every four years we have an entirely new undergraduate population. The other factor is that it’s hard to absorb ugly episodes in your own history. As Americans we’re especially allergic to taking responsibility for the mistakes and crimes in our national history. Overcoming these two hurdles to getting the history known have occupied the W.G. a great deal.
Do you think Georgetown, or the Society of Jesus, owes something to the descendants of the slaves owned by the Jesuit community?
This is another issue that has occupied the W.G. over the last seven months. I think yes, and that was the clear consensus of the W.G.: Part of making amends must include the descendants. But how and what—that’s the challenge. The most important component in figuring that challenge out is the participation of the descendants themselves. This is why, as you will see in the recommendations, the descendants are offered a privileged role in the ongoing process the university is undertaking.
What has been the involvement and reaction by the descendants of the slaves? Have you met many of them?
The outreach of the descendants to the university has been a moving part of the past year, at least for me. I certainly didn’t anticipate it when I accepted the chairmanship of the W.G., and I am most grateful for it. At this point, I would also call their engagement preliminary. There’s not much of a template for us—either for the university or for the descendants—to follow. We’re figuring out how to proceed. It’s important to keep in mind that “the descendants” are people, not an organization or an institution. Members of the W.G., and our lead historian Adam Rothman in particular, have had extensive contact with descendants. I myself have had contact with individual descendants since I was a Jesuit novice and was first introduced to the history about 30 years ago.
Some have argued that the focus on Georgetown has been unfair. Weren't there many other colleges and universities in the Deep South, for example, with ties to slavery? Even schools in the north, like Brown, were complicit. Have there been calls for reparations from these colleges as well? Why the focus, do you think, on Georgetown?
There are two books that I am particularly grateful to have read as part of the preparation for this Working Group. I recommend both to the people who have asked this question. The first is Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy, an outstanding investigation of the connections between the rise of higher education in the colonial and antebellum periods and the American slave economy and slave culture. It is meticulously researched and poignantly argued. It is especially disheartening for those of us who are passionate about our universities as a place where knowledge is increased and truth is pursued.
His thesis can be boiled down to this: The colonial and antebellum colleges and universities in the United States, both North and South, almost without exception, came into being because the slave economy supported them; and then the universities, especially in the 19th century, became greenhouses for the racism that still mars our social fabric.
The second book is a study and anthology of the ministry of reconciliation that St. John Paul II undertook in preparation for the millennium. The book is titled When a Pope Asks Forgiveness and was edited by Luigi Accattoli. It’s a moving reminder that we make our examinations of conscience and offer our mea culpas because we ourselves need to, not because everyone else is, too.
Do you feel the coverage of this story so far has been fair and accurate? The New York Times pieces seemed to give short shrift to the work already done by Georgetown, and might have made it seem as if the Times had discovered the story.
Rachel Swarn’s two pieces in The New York Times are outstanding; she deserves a Pulitzer. We’re doing our work so that others can draw from it as she has. We want others to learn from our successes and failures in this process. If journalism like Ms. Swarn’s can get America to look more critically and self-reflectively at the ways in which we are still the beneficiaries of our slaveholding past and in which our current society is still scarred by it and its legacy, then I hardly feel a need to grumble about this or that initiative here on campus or this or that citation from careful historical scholarship being overlooked.
How has this process affected you as a Jesuit and a priest?
I’ve spent many years as a Jesuit in Germany. I remember a particularly jarring insight shared with me by a fellow scholastic [a Jesuit studying in preparation for ordination] with whom I was studying philosophy at the time. He remarked that as a German he had no right to claim Bach and Brahms as his own without doing the same for Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen.
That’s certainly not how I was raised to think about my own American history. There’s something dysfunctional about cherry-picking only the pride-worthy aspects of a community’s past and saying these are things we will take credit for and the rest is not worth worrying about, as if the legacy of the good abides and that of the bad disappears, or is dismissed as someone else’s problem.
Jesuit history runs a similar danger. We love our Jesuit history, and we readily point to our great heroes and accomplishments. They embolden us to imitation. We even have a range of stories about the great injustices inflicted against us by princes and prelates through the ages. But we do our history and ourselves a grave disservice if we pretend that there haven’t been serious mistakes and deplorable crimes committed by us, as individuals, in governance and communally.
The participation of U.S. Jesuits in America’s slave-holding and slave-trading past is a perfect example. I’ve had the honor to teach this history to Jesuit novices for nearly 20 years. I consider it one of the most important things I do as a priest, as a Jesuit and as a historian. In the final analysis, the goal is not to scapegoat the past or to pat ourselves on the back for having solved this problem, but rather to coach us in the hunt for our own moral blindness. Our generation is, after all, no less sin-scarred and sinful than theirs.
Along these lines, I recall Pope Francis’ remarks on the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The year, he suggested, is not in the first instance about our running around and dispensing mercy to others. Rather, it is about taking the opportunity to understand how deeply we need God’s mercy ourselves. So, too, in the Society of Jesus.
UPDATE: The final working group report was released on Sept. 1. America's national correspondent Michael O'Loughlin has the story.