Georgetown sold enslaved people to save their University–Now What?
Recently, documents have been found in the Georgetown University archives that show the 1838 transaction of 272 enslaved people from the Jesuits’ Maryland plantation to former Louisiana governor (later U.S. Congressman) Henry Johnson and his associate Jesse Beatty. While these families were promised that they would stay together and to be able to practice their religion, all these promises were broken.
Dr. Adam Rothman, a Georgetown Associate Professor of History, gave a lecture on this emerging story which he sees as a “Microcosm of the whole history of slavery” that “Humans were transformed into commodities.” (Read his comments) Dr. Rothman has created a Georgetown Slavery Archives where these documents are being made available for all to see.
The long-held narrative, that African Americans cannot trace their family histories is beginning to crumble. DNA testing, television shows such as Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the digitization of family records and writings including slave records certainly are showing us that many families can indeed connect stories handed down for generations to the records that are now being made public. At the end of Dr. Rothman’s lecture at Georgetown, “Joe Brown spoke up from near the back of the room. He said that his ancestors had been slaves whose lives followed a similar trajectory at the hands of the Catholic Church in Maryland. Coincidentally, he had been at the library researching his family history at the same time as the discussion.”
A Georgetown alumnus, Richard J. Cellini, the chief executive of a technology company and a practicing Catholic, was “troubled that neither the Jesuits nor university officials had tried to trace the lives of the enslaved African-Americans or compensate their progeny.” (Read the whole story)
For those of us in Cincinnati, the Geneaology Center at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center is an excellent resource. In addition, the New York Times is asking for descendants to send in their stories and identify themselves. So when we discover that the sale of 272 enslaved people saved Georgetown University, this can’t be the end of the story. What will Georgetown University, the Jesuit order and the Catholic Church do to acknowledge this history and try to make amends?