What does Georgetown University owe to the descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves?

What do institutions that benefited from the sale and exploitation black bodies owe the descendants of slaves? How should individuals tainted by their complicity in the United States' "peculiar institution" be remembered or memorialized? 

These are questions all Americans must grapple with; but today at Georgetown University they are no longer simply being considered in the abstract. 

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The Georgetown Memory Project is an independent nonprofit organization founded by friends and alumni of the university to confront a dark chapter of the Jesuit institution's history: In 1838, Georgetown sold 272 slaves from Jesuit plantations in Maryland—men, women and children—to plantations in Louisiana, often breaking up families in the process.

The stated mission of the G.M.P. is fourfold:

  • Identify the people sold in 1838
  • Locate their living descendent
  • Acknowledge them as members of the Georgetown family
  • Honor their sacrifice & legacy

In April, The New York Times reported on the project and asked readers to make contact if they thought their ancestors were among the 272 slaves. Scores responded. Today in The Times, we read the stories of four of these descendants.

Charles Hill, 74, says his father told him that their family came from Maryland, but never mentioned the Jesuits. “He didn’t want to disturb our Catholic faith. He didn’t want to lose us.” And he didn't. Today, Mr. Hill is still a Catholic, “Knights of Columbus, fourth degree,” he says.

Sandra Green Thomas, 54, says she is still processing the new information. Her great great-grandmother, Betsy Ware Harris, was likely pregnant or a new mother when she was sold. “When I realized that, my heart just broke for her.”

Orlando Ward, 55, wants to look forward: “Let’s jump ahead and talk about reparations. How do you really value the damage that was done in a way that’s straightforward and fair?” Scholarships for descendants are part of the answer but so too is a reckoning for those responsible for the sale. “I think it’s important for both sides to be pointed out and memorialized, not villainized,” says Mr. Ward, “to begin to build a model for healthy dialogue.”

Rochell Sanders Prater, 55, sees the hand of God in the revelations about her ancestry: “I trust that this is a divine intervention. It’s a gift from God that can help heal this nation.” Which is not to say the rest of us are off the hook. When it comes to bridging the racial divide, Ms. Prater says: “I don’t want to have a dialogue about it. I want us to do something.”

These are just four stories. There are thousands of descendants alive today. Their voices are indispensable if this country is to “do something” about slavery’s ugly legacy: persistent and rising segregation in our schools; the mass incarceration of African-Americans; an unemployment in the black community more than double that of whites.

Georgetown has already taken one concrete step: Buildings named for William McSherry and Thomas Mulledy, the Jesuits primarily responsible for the sale of the 272 slaves, have been temporarily renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall. It is a small but significant first step. And, as Margot Patterson writes in her latest column, “[by] contending with their slave-owning history” Georgetown and other universities “are blazing a trail for American society to follow.”

Check out America’s coverage of the Jesuits and slavery:

Acts of Penance, Margot Patterson
Bringing scrutiny to bear on the slave labor that sustained it, Georgetown has been claiming its own sinful history. A wealth of information in its archives has drawn wide attention, but it’s the willingness to acknowledge wrong and deeply engage with history in pursuit of truth and reconciliation that seems so promising.
 
Saved by Grace, Cora Marie Billings, R.S.M.
Often I am asked how I can remain a Roman Catholic when the church I now serve in had ownership of a member of my family. Although this part of our Catholic history might make some people turn away from the church, this knowledge makes me more determined to stay and to work for greater equality for people in the church and the world today. 
 
Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation has plans for an ongoing set of events to help the community discuss how “to foster a creative response to this shameful part of our history.” As the broader conversation about race in U.S. society continues to unfold, this example reminds us that we ought to hope not just for the success of protests, or an end to them, but for energy for the ongoing work of reconciliation.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
1 year 5 months ago
What the Jesuits are doing at Georgetown about their slave ownership and sale of slaves in the past, is not only highly laudable, but absolutely essential if Justice be done and true love practiced, leading to reconciliation and forgiveness. High Fives to the Jesuits for once again showing what it really means to be in the company of Jesus, and to be part of his society! Other Religious Communities in the Church are being clued to do the same, cleansing their Orders of black exploitation of any kind. Every institution really. Make it a “full house cleaning.” Heaven focused on the reality of slave ownership in the Church in a most unexpected way, namely through the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Scientifically examined a few decades ago, trying to determine the type of paint, watercolor, whatever, was used to create the image on Juan Diego’s cactus fiber tilma, no determination could be made. In the course of the examination of the image, careful microscopic imaging of the eyes revealed within the eyes inverted images of certain people – a male Indian presumed to be Juan Diego, a Bishop, from known features appeared to be the Diocesan Bishop at the time and three black woman. Curiously who were they? Historical investigation showed that black slaves where used in the Bishop’s house and it was then assumed that the black persons in the eye of the Virgin of Guadalupe were black slaves in the Bishop’s palace. (Information taken from “The Face Of Our Lady Of Guadalupe” issue of Catholic Digest, 1994, condensed from the book, “Our Lady Of Guadalupe.” It’s also interesting to note that Paul in his Letters did not try to undo human slavery common in his day using instead the word “slave” referencing our relationship to Jesus. However, Jesus said that he would no longer call his disciples “servants” (slaves) but now “friends.” And that's what we should all be, one to the other, friendly sisters and brothers.
William deHaas
1 year 5 months ago
Mr. Snowden - suggest that you do more homework on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here you go: http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/Books/bid360.htm High points: Poole finds that, despite common belief, the apparition account was unknown prior to 1648, when it was first published by a Mexican priest. And then, the virgin became the predominant devotion not of the Indians, but of the criollos, who found in the story a legitimization of their own national aspirations and an almost messianic sense of mission and identity. Poole finds no evidence of a contemporary association of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the Mexican goddess Tonantzin, as is frequently assumed, and he rejects the common assertion that the early missionaries consciously substituted Guadalupe for a preconquest deity. http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=8437 or go to Commonweal, 2002, article - Did Juan Diego Exist? answer - no
Bruce Snowden
1 year 5 months ago
Thank you Mr. deHass for your comment. As far as I am concerned, it's not a matter of "you say" "I say" but what the Church says. No Juan Diego? Then whom did the Church recently canonize? There is something definitively "beyond this world" about the Our Lady of Guadalupe image, imprinted on cactus fiber material, so porous that whatever was used was bound to seep through to the other side. It hasn't happened, nor has extensive scientific study been able to identify the material used to produce the image. One theory suggests it happened by nuclear fission, something like the imprints of leaves on walls etc. in Hiroshima after the atomic blast. Similar claims are made regarding the Shroud of Turin, where I once read the imprinted image is as if it happened from the inside out, a "rising up" impression suggested. Also, regarding Guadalupe, that microscopic optic examination revealed invisible, but identifiable images in the eyes of the Virgin inverted exactly as the mechanics of sight interprets objects seen, is unexplainable apart from Divine intervention. How else can such a thing happen? The whole thing is up for grabs so to speak - believe it, or deny it as Voltaire once said, "Even if I saw a miracle happen before my eyes, I would not believe!" I believe, you question with a mind and heart ready to believe, I trust and that's O.K. I hope you'll find the evidence you need. I'm satisfied with mine.
Beth Cioffoletti
1 year 5 months ago
I, too, am descended from the Maryland Catholics AND the Piscataway Indians. On March 25, 1634, Fr. Andrew White SJ landed on St. Clement Island and celebrated the first Mass said on the North American continent. Thus the Maryland colony was established. Fr. White did much to help the colonists survive and form alliances with the native tribes. He baptized Piscataway Indian chief, Kittamaquund, and arranged a marriage with his daughter (Catholic named: "Mary") and an older colonist, Giles Brent. I am descended from this union. According to the story, after producing 5 children, "Mary" returned to her tribe, leaving her children with the colonists. These children assumed that their Piscataway mother gave them rights to the Indian land. There is a lot to process when considering the deeds of our ancesters regarding both the slaves and the Indians. My great grandfather (also a descendant of the Piscataway union) freed his slave, Narssia, and gave her the cottage that she lived in. She became the first black woman to own her own property in the state of KY. She eventually sold the cottage to buy freedom for her son. I think that it is most important that the truth be told, acknowledged, and marked. Yes, there is shame, but it is a shame that can only be redeemed if the truth is told. A monument should mark where these slaves were sold. Their names should be listed. Their children and descendants and all of us should know this story. Enough of glorifying of the estates of the slaveholders, their women in big hooped dresses and well educated and refined men. Many don't even mark the graves of the many un-named slaves who, for generations, worked the plantations. Enough of the statues of confederate war leaders in every town square of the South. Until we can mark the places of selling and lynching with names and the truth of our common history, we are just digging ourselves deeper into The Lie.
Beth Cioffoletti
1 year 5 months ago
This is my lineage traced to Mary Kittamaquund: 1. Richard Brent b. abt. 1573 d. abt. 1653 m. Elizabeth Reed. 2. (son) Giles Brent b. 1606 Glouchestershire, England d.1671 Stafford, VA m. Mary Kittamaquund b. abt. 1633 daughter of Chitomachen Kittamaquund. 3. (daughter) Katherine Brent b. abt. 1649 Peach Plantation Stafford VA. d. abt. 1690 Calvery Co. MD. m. Richard Marsham b. Calvert County MD. d. 1713 Prince George MD. 4. (daughter) Katherine Marsham (Brooke 1st) m. Samuel Queen b.1630 England d. 1711 St. Mary’s. MD. 5. (son) Marsham Queen b. 1700? St. Mary’s MD. d. 1771 m. Mary Jameson 6. (son) Richard Queen b. MD. d. 1794 m. Mary C. Gardiner 7. (son) James Queen b. 1750 MD. d. 1818 KY. m. Elizabeth Boone 8. (son) Joseph Queen b. 1802 d. 1887 KY. m. Louisa ? 9. (son) William Duffield Queen b. 1872 Bardstown KY. d. 1942 m. Georgia Veronica Cambron b. 1876 d. 1913 Loretto KY. 10. (daughter) Anna Elizabeth Queen b. 1913 Loretto KY. d. 1973 Bardstown KY m. Edwin Montgomery Hagan b. 1907 d. 1983 (ME) 11. (daughter) Elizabeth Queen Hagan b. 1950 KY m. John Anthony Cioffoletti b. 1951
Bruce Snowden
1 year 5 months ago
Beth, High Fives for sharing so forthrightly your heritage, with the public! I find what you did admirable.
Beth Cioffoletti
1 year 5 months ago
Haha. Thanks, Bruce. It's very cool to find that you are descended from the daughter of a Piscataway Indian chief (and the very one who was baptized by Fr. Andrew White SJ). The thing is, our American history has been so white-washed that you have to make an effort to find out what the real story is. And I'm from the privileged white class. Can you imagine how difficult this is for African Americans? No names, no marked graves. That is a story that we wanted hidden and buried. It is very important that the story of the slaves be told and known, and I applaud Georgetown University for opening this buried box. I'm not sure that a "monetary" apology is what is needed. Sounds too much like throwing money at a problem without really solving the problem. But truthfully exposing what happened can go a very long way in healing wounds. It seems to me that this is an essential 1st step before we can even begin to improve race relations in the USA.

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