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Leslie Woodcock TentlerSeptember 14, 2023
Mulledy Hall, also known as Freedom Hall, center, on the campus of Georgetown University April 4. The building will be renamed after Isaac Hawkins, the first enslaved person listed in the Jesuit university's documents on its selling of slaves. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

In 1838, the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, long a major slaveholder in the mid-Atlantic region, sold 272 of the men, women and children it owned to purchasers in Louisiana. The sale generated widespread criticism at the time, mainly because of its size and consequent visibility. Residents of this region, as elsewhere where slavery was then legal, were accustomed to slave sales; coffles of enslaved people were sometimes marched past the U.S. Capitol en route to a major slave market in nearby Alexandria, Va.

The 272by Rachel L. Swarns

Random House
352p $28

But large-scale sales of the enslaved by individual owners were relatively rare—the 1838 sale by the Jesuits, Rachel Swarns tells us in The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, was “one of the largest documented slave sales in the nation”—and the Jesuits had enjoyed a reputation, not wholly deserved, as unusually humane slaveholders. (Their failings in this regard had mainly to do with the Jesuit province’s lack of financial resources, precisely the problem that provoked the 1838 sale.) Proceeds from that sale, which ultimately netted the Jesuits the equivalent of some $4.5 million in today’s dollars, did much to stabilize the province’s finances and to rescue debt-ridden Georgetown Academy—today’s Georgetown University—from probable collapse.

The Jesuits continued to own slaves, or to rely on rented slaves for labor, at various outposts in the South until 1864.

The Jesuits were hardly the only religious order in the United States to own slaves. Nearly every Catholic religious order—women’s communities as well as men’s—that resided where slavery was permitted owned at least a few slaves. But the Jesuits owned by far the most, mainly because of the peculiar circumstances of their early decades in British America.

Shortly after the arrival of the first Jesuits in Maryland in 1634, that colony’s Catholic proprietor ceded to the order vast tracts of local land, meant to provide the young community with sustenance for its ministry. And indeed, the profits generated by the Jesuits’ various Maryland “plantations” were the order’s principal source of income in the United States as late as the early 19th century. The Jesuits initially staffed their plantations not with enslaved persons but with indentured servants, most (but not all) of whom were white. It was only with a growing scarcity of indentured labor, and concomitant moves in each of Britain’s American colonies to recognize in law an explicitly racialized form of slavery, that the Jesuits began to acquire slaves of their own. The oldest known record of Jesuit slaveholding in Maryland—and hence in British North America—is from 1717.

The Maryland Jesuits took seriously their spiritual obligations to those they enslaved, often requiring them to attend Mass and policing their private behavior. A good many of their slaves, in fact, did embrace Catholicism. But those same slaves often lived in abject poverty, an almost inevitable consequence of the order’s recurrent financial crises.

The order’s need for cash also led to at least occasional slave sales. When the Jesuits did sell slaves, they normally tried to do so locally, to avoid severing kinship ties in the slave community, and they generally declined to sell spouses away from one another or dependent children away from their parents. But the fear of sale was an omnipresent cloud over life among the enslaved, even those owned by conscientious masters. That fear grew stronger in the 19th century, as seaboard agriculture began to decline and the states of the Deep South were opened to cultivation.

Nearly one million enslaved persons were forcibly transported from the states of the Upper South to the Deep South between 1800 and 1860. The Maryland Jesuits were discussing the possibility of selling significant numbers of slaves as early as the 1820s, although objections to this option were still sufficiently strong within the local Jesuit community, not to mention in Rome, to forestall any action.

That opposition had not disappeared by the mid-1830s, although it had weakened significantly. The order’s financial troubles had grown more severe by then, and a new generation of leaders lacked their predecessors’ attachment to the aging plantations and the history they represented. Among the most influential voices pressing for a mass sale of the Jesuits’ slaves were those of Fathers Thomas Mulledy, the youthful president of Georgetown Academy, and William McSherry, the provincial superior of the Maryland Jesuits.

Theirs was an expansive vision of the order’s future in the United States, with a revivified Georgetown Academy functioning as a principal intellectual center for the young nation and a network of new academies enhancing the work of the church in growing cities. Such a vision was expensive, both men pointed out; it could not be realized with the dwindling profits from plantations that were dependent—as even their defenders had to admit—on a labor force with built-in inefficiencies.

The fear of sale was an omnipresent cloud over life among the enslaved, even those owned by conscientious masters.

With Roman permission finally obtained, a mass sale of slaves took place in stages in 1838. Mulledy supervised the sale, though he was bound by certain strictures dictated by the Jesuit general superior in Rome. Elderly or infirm slaves could not be sold, nor were spouses to be separated—a directive that Mulledy ignored in at least a few cases. Rachel Swarns depicts Mulledy, with good reason, as a headstrong man and probably an alcoholic. His behavior was also prompted by ambition, both for himself and for the future of the American Jesuits.

The Jesuits continued to own slaves, or to rely on rented slaves for labor, at various outposts in the South until 1864. Perhaps this is one reason that the 1838 sale appears to have receded so quickly in Jesuit memory. The past decade, however, has brought that sale back to public attention, with demonstrations on the Georgetown campus, extended media coverage and, now, Swarns’s splendid book.

Swarns describes Jesuit slaveholding through the history of the Mahoney family, members of whom had been bought by the Maryland Jesuits in the mid-18th century. That same family was divided by the 1838 sale, with most but not all enslaved members then living sold to purchasers in Louisiana.

The family’s story begins with the arrival in Maryland in 1634 of Ann Joice, a probably biracial woman who initially worked as an indentured servant; she was forcibly reduced to slavery over the course of her long life. A few of her descendants, at least some of whom were visibly biracial, achieved their freedom by various means. But most remained enslaved.

Those family members owned by the Jesuits seem to have enjoyed a privileged status, working as house servants or skilled craftspeople rather than field hands and, at least according to family tradition, beneficiaries of a promise of protection from sale—this in reward for the heroic defense of Jesuit property by Harry Mahoney during an 1814 raid by the British army at the St. Inigoes plantation. That promise was broken in 1838, when most of Harry’s children and grandchildren were sold. He and his wife, Anna, remained at St. Inigoes, still the property of the Jesuits, on the grounds of age. Both were still enslaved when they died.

Maryland formally abolished slavery in 1864, one year before the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the end of slavery nationwide. But it was a limited freedom, with abolition quickly followed by violent repression of the newly freed and the eventual imposition of disenfranchisement and legal segregation. Although Swarns’s account of the Mahoney family’s time in slavery is remarkably vivid, given the scant historical record, we learn little of their story after the end of the Civil War. Most family members seem to have remained Catholic. One of Harry’s granddaughters joined the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans and served for 18 years as their mother superior; a great-great granddaughter was a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Several of Harry’s descendants, moreover, are among those currently pressing Georgetown University and the Jesuit order to make restitution for the grievous sin of 1838 and for a long history of slaveholding.

This latest chapter in the story—that of Harry and Anna and more than a thousand like them—is still being written, as Swarns explains in her admirably fair-minded epilogue.

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