Monday, April 18, 2016
Georgetown's Slave Sale
Over the course of the eighteenth century the Jesuits came to own hundreds of African slaves. I am not sure how this happened, since some prominent Jesuits were very much opposed to slavery. I imagine slavery was just such a fact of life in the Chesapeake that it came to seem as natural to the Jesuits as it did to most of their neighbors, and after all the church had not yet condemned slavery.
One of the things the Jesuits did with the money they earned growing tobacco was to found, in 1789, Georgetown University. So this noble institution was from its beginnings paid for by the labor of slaves on Jesuit plantations.
In 1838, as the nation's banks collapsed like dominoes and a severe recession settled on America, Georgetown found itself on the edge of bankruptcy. They decided to solve their financial problem by selling off their most valuable movable asset: the human beings they happened to own. Like most big Chesapeake planters, the Jesuits had sold off a few slaves before. As tobacco declined in the Tidewater and its place was taken by wheat fields and tree plantations, Tidewater planters needed fewer workers. Meanwhile their slaves kept having children, and many planters had more workers than they knew how to use. So they sold them south and west, to the newly opening lands from Alabama to Texas. Hundreds of thousands of people were sold in this way, traveling by sea to New Orleans, or trudging overland to the Ohio River to be floated down to Natchez. How this was done varied. Some planters worked hard to keep nuclear families together and find buyers with good reputations and so on, but others just went for the highest profit. It was a grim business and even slavery's most ardent proponents worried about it; some of them tried to shift the blame from the planters to northern bankers whose evil machinations had forced good southern people to such drastic acts. When Georgetown's president, Father Thomas Mulledy, got permission from Rome for the sale, he promised that families would be kept together and all the slaves would be able to keep practicing Catholicism. But in the end he did none of that; he simply sold 272 people as a lot to slave traders who shipped them to New Orleans and sold them individually to the highest bidder.
The current leaders of Georgetown are feeling very guilty about this. They have launched a major project to study what happened to the people they sold and identify their descendants. They have even identified some, and shared with them what the university's researchers have learned about their ancestors. They have also posted online all the documents they can find related to the sale and to the lives of the victims before and after they were sold.
It's a very interesting sort of atonement, perhaps appropriate for a university: to honor the victims by learning all that can be learned about them and spreading that knowledge far and wide, especially to the descendants of the wronged.