How the Faith of 272 Black Catholic Slaves Has Given Georgetown a New Future
More than 178 years ago, the Society of Jesus sold 272 black Catholics to Louisiana planters to save the university. But their enduring faith has helped Georgetown take a new direction.
WASHINGTON — Joseph was sold by his brothers for 20 pieces of silver. The Lord Jesus was betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver.
These stories were no doubt in the mind of Samuel and Betsy Harris as they boarded a ship with three children, including a 5-month-old daughter, bound for Louisiana from Maryland in 1838. After all, the Jesuit priests who had taught them about Jesus and given them the Catholic faith had betrayed them, too — each of them for a price of several hundred dollars of silver.
In order to financially rescue Georgetown University from bankruptcy, the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 sold 272 black slaves on their plantations — men, women and children they had owned, baptized, catechized and married — for $115,000 dollars, equal to $3.3 million today.
But the story did not end in Louisiana — after more than 178 years, the tears and prayers of those 272 Catholic men, women and children have seen a new chapter begin: On Sept. 1, Georgetown University confessed the gravity of its sins with slavery. It released a 102-page report from a working group that documented Georgetown’s dependence on slavery to build the university’s iconic campus, literally brick-by-brick, and the infamous sale of the Catholic African-Americans by the Jesuits to keep it afloat.
Much like the story of Joseph and Jesus, this new chapter in the university’s involvement with the slave trade will affect the lives of countless other men, women and children, due to the steps that Georgetown will make with their descendants.
The turmoil and recognition of their betrayal is recorded by contemporary Jesuit accounts. According to the history now uncovered by Georgetown University, the sale had provoked a worldwide scandal in the Society of Jesus. Many Jesuits had denounced the sale as a betrayal of the slaves in their spiritual care, while a few American Jesuits appear to have helped some escape to freedom.
The Jesuit architects of the sale had broken every condition laid on them by their superiors in Rome, who reluctantly gave their approval: They broke apart slave families, never guaranteed their religious instruction and used the proceeds to not only save Georgetown and preserve its existence into the present day, but also spread the funds around to other Jesuit institutions that stand today up and down the country east of the Mississippi River.
Unearthing the Truth
Until this year, the people sold to the Louisiana plantation owners were forgotten beneath a lie, calling to mind the Book of Genesis and how Joseph’s brothers had covered up the story of his enslavement. In the case of the 272, however, a tale was spun — its author unclear — that they had all died of a sudden fever upon reaching the plantations in the bayous.
According to their descendants, their ancestors survived and thrived and built their own proud legacy, rising up from slavery. The heroic faith planted in Louisiana by the Harrises and their fellow Catholics is one of the unsung stories of the Catholic Church in the U.S. today.
Sandra Green Thomas, whose great-great-grandparents were Samuel and Betsy Harris, told the Register that she and other descendants only discovered their connection with Georgetown this year. They knew their ancestors had passed on this rich Catholic legacy to their descendants. They built churches and rooted an all-encompassing African-American Catholic society in the rich, dark soil of Louisiana, even as they experienced racism and segregation in the Church.
“The Church was just so much part of our lives,” Thomas said, “everything from our faith to our social life.”
President John DeGioia, in presenting the report on Sept. 1 in Gunston Hall, made clear that the university was going to confess this sinful action and redress those wrongs and their lasting effects. He also set out the first steps the university would take with its vast resources — working with the descendants of the 272 — to become a force in healing the nation’s wounded racial present and build a future of genuine social and economic equality.
Georgetown’s First Steps
As part of its steps to act on the report, DeGioia said Georgetown, the oldest Catholic university in the United States, recognizes the descendants of the slaves who built the university — including the 272 who were sold to preserve the institution financially — as part of its family. Their descendants will get preferential admission status when applying to the university — the same as descendants of Georgetown alumni.
DeGioia also made clear that Georgetown has the resources to make it financially possible for the descendants of any income level to achieve a Georgetown education and would study further ways to make it happen.
Georgetown will also start to memorialize throughout its campus its debt to the contributions of black Americans, both slave and free, the president said. The two halls at Georgetown that once bore the names of the two architects of the sale — Jesuit Fathers Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry — will instead be named for Isaac Hawkins, the child first listed on the bill of sale, and for Anne Marie Becraft, a free black woman who founded a school for black girls in Georgetown’s neighborhood in 1827 and later became an Oblate Sister of Providence.
A public monument to honor the memory of the 272 Georgetown slaves will also be established in consultation with their descendants.
The university will also offer a public apology for its historical involvement in slavery and fostering the racial divide with a Mass of reconciliation, involving the Archdiocese of Washington and the Jesuit Conference.
On its own campus, Georgetown, DeGioia said, has already taken some first steps by forming a Department of African-American Studies and a center for racial justice. But he said the university will do more to exercise its “institutional agency” — such as through its medical, law and policy centers — to address the unresolved legacy of slavery, segregation and racial injustice that continue to be felt in the lives of too many Americans today.
DeGioia pointed to statistics that show black families have an average income of $39,000 in D.C., while white families have an average income of $101,000 a year. African-American men live 15 years less on average than their white counterparts in the district. He also pointed to how the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and African-American men make up a disproportionate part of that population.
He explained that Georgetown’s university community and the descendants could work to find ways for Georgetown to turn this legacy, in order to “improve the health and the living conditions under which individuals and families flourish.”
“The presentation of this report is not intended to bring closure to our work,” DeGioia said. “Much more is incumbent upon us.”
The Descendants Speak
As Sandra Green Thomas flew from New Orleans to Washington on Sept. 1, along with other descendants who had organized and formed the GU 272 Descendants foundation, she admired the positive first steps Georgetown has taken. But she told the Register that the report’s underlying weakness was that it had not involved the descendants themselves in the process
“I don’t see how you can reconcile with people who are not involved,” she said.
They intended to rectify that situation. They arrived at Georgetown, where they received a standing ovation, to make sure that representatives of the descendants would formally receive the report and extend the offer of partnership, working together as a reunited Georgetown family.
President DeGioia ceded the floor and microphone to Joseph Stewart of Battle Creek, Mich., who explained that the faces of the men, women and children sold by the Jesuits can be seen in them and 10,000 other descendants — and Georgetown could not hope to achieve their goals of reconciling the lasting effects of slavery’s legacy without their partnered efforts.
“Our attitude is, nothing about us without us,” said Stewart.
Karran Harper Royal of Louisiana then read the one-page declaration of the GU 272 Descendants, which affirmed Georgetown’s first steps and, in turn, pledged the descendants would honor their ancestors and their resilience by committing themselves to “organize and involve all of our Georgetown brothers and sisters in an effective and sustained movement to reconcile our Georgetown family, our nation and our human family from the legacy of slavery.”
“Our goal is to unshackle the hearts and minds of those who were never physically in bondage, but who nevertheless live and work under the vestiges of our nation’s legacy of slavery,” they stated.
Other African-American Catholic leaders welcomed the first steps taken at Georgetown. Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., the author of two pastoral letters on the racial divide in the United States, told the Register in a statement that while “there is nothing anyone can do to undo the sins of the past,” he appreciated the “honest and public way in which Dr. DeGioia has begun to address this sad history.”
“I hope the actions of Georgetown University will prompt other Catholic institutions, whose history has been entangled in the nation's original sin of profiting from human bondage and forced labor, to take a long hard look at that history and act appropriately,” he said.
Faith That Could Not Be Taken Away
That historic day in Georgetown would not have been possible without the remarkable faith of the Catholic men, women and children sold by the Jesuits.
Only because they decided to keep the faith, in spite of the enormous betrayal by their own shepherds, was it possible for Georgetown alumnus Richard Cellini, a Catholic and Cambridge, Mass.-based attorney, to trace their descendants through sacramental records.
Part of the reason the working group had not involved the descendants was because it began its work in September 2015 believing they did not exist. According to Cellini, the official story handed down by Georgetown’s Jesuits was that the 272 persons from the slave sale had all died from fever upon arriving in Louisiana and left no descendants.
Cellini’s Georgetown Memory Project discovered that story was false, but it had the effect of making the sale designed by Fathers Mulledy and McSherry — which provoked scandal and outrage from fellow Jesuits at the time — appear to be an irreversible fait accompli.
Instead, he discovered that the Georgetown slaves had not only survived, but thrived, in Louisiana, leaving behind an estimated 10,000 descendants and a rich legacy of Catholic faith. So far, the project has found out what happened to 209 out of the 272 Georgetown slaves, documenting 2,500 descendants back to them.
“One of the most common names kept by the families today is ‘Nace’ — short for Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus,” Cellini said. “And these families are deeply Catholic today, and they will tell you what enabled them to survive as human beings and as families was their Catholic faith.”
Many of their bones are interred in Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Maringouin, a deeply Catholic and African-American community, in Louisiana.
Cellini said they found more than 900 of the 1,100 people who live there are direct descendants from the Georgetown slaves, who worked on the nearby plantation. The community also bears some lasting scars of that sale: It is very poor — the median income per capita is $10,000; the median household income is $20,000 — and does “not even have a high school.”
Drawing on Their Ancestors’ Legacy
While Sandra Thomas and many descendants have built successful careers and businesses on the “up from slavery” story of their ancestors after the Civil War, the deep, intergenerational poverty that has afflicted other descendants of the Georgetown slave sale highlights why Thomas and others believe that Georgetown should provide tuition-free scholarships to those descendants who gain admission.
Their ancestors had made it possible for Georgetown to be tuition-free at its inception, but many children of those descendants trying to break free of poverty would be loaded with enormous debts upon graduation should they seek to attend the Catholic university. The cost of attending a year at Georgetown totals more than $66,000 — the tuition alone is $43,000.
Thomas said the descendants are looking forward to working with Georgetown. The descendants have just discovered each other and are coming together with their ideas — including the idea of setting up a billion-dollar charitable foundation in partnership with Georgetown — that will use their ancestors’ legacy to benefit the lives of others afflicted by racial injustice.
The foundation of these new endeavors rests firmly on the legacy of the Jesuit slaves who owned their faith — African-American Catholics like Samuel and Betsy Harris. Reflecting on her great-great-grandparents, Thomas explained they must have possessed a greater insight into the Catholic faith than the priests who betrayed them.
“There must have been something in them that said, ‘I can transcend all the horrible things that the people in front of me who represent this [faith] have done to me. And I can go past them to the core of the beliefs and the teachings,’” she concluded.
“This was so much part of their faith and their identity.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.