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272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?

BY   Rachel L. Swarns  |  PUB   The New York Times 


In 1838, the Jesuit priests who ran the country’s top Catholic university needed money to keep it alive. Now comes the task of making amends.
WASHINGTON — The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

Now, with racial protests roiling college campuses, an unusual collection of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists is trying to find out what happened to those 272 men, women and children. And they are confronting a particularly wrenching question: What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival.

More than a dozen universities — including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But the 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say.

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.

Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.



Georgetown University
PRIVATE RESEARCH UNIVERSITY, WASHINGTON, DC
Georgetown University is a private research university in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1789, it is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in the United States. Located in Washington’s historic Georgetown neighborhood, the university’s main campus is noted for Healy Hall, a National Historic Landmark. Georgetown’s law school is located on Capitol Hill, and the university has auxiliary campuses in Italy, Turkey and Qatar.

Georgetown’s founding by John Carroll, America’s first Catholic bishop, realized efforts dating from the settlement of the province of Maryland in 1634 to establish a local Roman Catholic college in the face of religious persecution. The university expanded after the American Civil War under the leadership of Patrick Francis Healy, who came to be known as its “second founder,” despite having been born into slavery. Jesuits have participated in its administration since 1805, a heritage Georgetown celebrates, but the university has always been governed independently of the Society of Jesus and of church authorities.

Comprising nine undergraduate and graduate schools, the university enrolls approximately 7,000 undergraduate and 10,000 post-graduate students from a wide variety of religious, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds, including 130 foreign countries.[9] Georgetown’s most notable alumni are prominent in public life in the United States and abroad. Among them are former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, dozens of U.S. governors and members of Congress, heads of state or government of more than a dozen countries, royalty and diplomats.

Campus organizations include the country’s largest student-run business and largest student-run financial institution. Georgetown’s athletic teams, nicknamed the Hoyas, include a men’s basketball team that has won a record-tying seven Big East championships, appeared in five Final Fours, and won a national championship in 1984, as well as a co-ed sailing team that holds nine national championship and one world championship title.

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