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Slavery: All over us, All over America

Before my friend and activist Tony De Pass died of colon cancer, he often boasted, during frequent and blistering critiques about the intelligence deficit of America’s political class, that he owed his intellectual heft to the excellent education he received from Jesuits: “Those boys didn’t play,” he told me more than once. As a Catholic from New Orleans, I knew about the legendary academic rigors of Jesuit priests.

However, after reading Rachel L. Swarns’ The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church (Random House, 2023), I am certain De Pass would be equally generous with his condemnation of the order — at least its early American leaders.

Regular readers of The New York Times and The Washington Post know the basic story about the order’s sale of enslaved people to finance the construction and expansion of Georgetown University. The 272 goes far beyond those headlines, however.

Swarns, a contributing writer for The New York Times and an associate professor of journalism at New York University, has conducted extensive research, reviewing government and church archives as well as interviewing those whose ancestors were enslaved by the Jesuits. She has included detailed and plentiful footnotes.

The result of that stellar work is a fine piece of storytelling that is simultaneously riveting, tragic and enraging. Swarns exposes the Jesuits’ elitism, their racist attitudes and behaviors, their lust for luxury, their material greed, and their thirst for influence and power. She lays bare their determination to place their imprimatur and that of the Catholic Church across the entire new land — at any cost, including betraying their spiritual codes and mission.

If the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is the basis for the Catholic doctrine of “original sin” and mandates a system of spiritual cleansing including baptism, then what should be the atonement for the depravity captured in The 272? Are legacy scholarships for descendants of the enslaved — the initial resolution in place at Georgetown University for the past few years — a sufficient “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”?

The portraits Swarns paints of the Jesuit priests are as important to advancing our full understanding of what happened as those of the Black people they enslaved to work on their massive plantations. The funds from those operations were pooled together to support the Jesuits’ overall strategic agenda of building schools, universities and churches and ultimately gaining equal or maybe superior footing to Protestants.

The narrative arc of the book begins with a teenager named Ann Joice and follows her descendants through their post-Civil War life of quasi-freedom. Choosing to focus the book principally on one family not only allows a penetrating examination of their struggles on the various plantations, but provides deep insight into the disruption of a people and a culture — a disruption that caused generational trauma, the effects of which are visible in contemporary socioeconomic issues within Black America.

Joice grew up “in the tropics, in a slave society” before traveling to England and then arriving in the American colonies in 1676 as an indentured servant to Charles Calvert. She was promised her freedom when her tenure ended — except he was forced to leave Maryland and return to England, leaving her with Col. Henry Darnall, who promptly burned her contract and thus began her life as a slave.

Triumphant moments can be found in Swarns’ book, like when Black folks successfully filed lawsuits in the courts to win their freedom. There are courageous acts — insurrections and escapes, for example — as well as tender times when enslaved Blacks fell in love and married.

However, there are many more heartbreaks. Ann’s descendents Patrick and Charles Mahoney, who had been owned by Father John Ashton, a founder of Georgetown College, persuaded a jury that they should be free because their mother wasn’t enslaved — only to have new witnesses appear who claimed Joice was never an indentured servant.

Another descendant — Harry Mahoney — married and, together with his wife Anna and their children, settled into a somewhat happy life, buoyed by a Jesuit priest’s pledge that Mahoney’s family would never be separated and sold off like animals. That promise came after Harry rescued and buried the plantation’s money bags during the War of 1812, when he also hid many of the slaves from British troops.

Within a few years, the Judas moment arrived: “Harry Mahoney knew it then. ‘We’re sold!,’ he cried.”

Few Catholics in the region now known as the DMV seemed bothered at the time by ownership of other humans. The dispute and tension in the ranks came when there was a push to sell off the enslaved people. Even individuals like Bishop John Carroll — who, according to Swarns, claimed not to support a sale — would equivocate, writing in 1805 that “The sale of a few unnecessary Negroes” would help cover some of the estates’ expenses.

The massive sell-off didn’t come until 1838, however. It was a quiet deal masterminded by Virginian Thomas Mulledy, a former Georgetown College president, and William McSherry, another Virginian who would go on to serve in the same role. They and others negotiated the deal with Henry Johnson, an owner of multiple Louisiana plantations, whose wealth was directly attributable to the number of Blacks he enslaved and forced to work on his properties. Whenever Johnson, a former Louisiana governor who fancied himself one day holding a seat in Congress, wanted to showcase himself, he’d buy land and more people, bringing his relatives into various deals.

He negotiated a purchase price of $115,000 for the 272 men, women and children, making a down payment of $25,000 with the understanding that he would pay $90,000 over 10 years plus annual interest of 6%. He received a grace period of five years before he had to start those yearly deposits.

Johnson was a man constantly juggling. Consequently, it always seemed he might be unable to make the note. Swarns wrote that some with Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation considered it unlikely that the Jesuits received all the money promised for the sale. However, the Jesuits’ ledgers from the period indicate that by the time the Civil War had been fought and Blacks won their freedom the Jesuits had received more than $130,000.

Harry and Anna Mahoney — who were, respectively, in their 70s and 60s at the time of the sale — “remained safely on the Jesuit estate” of St. Inigoes. Father Joseph Carbery, who had arrived at the Maryland plantation in 1817 and was considered a “champion” of enslaved people, managed to protect them.

While the couple was actually too old to be of any significant use to Johnson, their daughter, Louisa, was a different matter. Carbery “handed Johnson a promissory note, pledging to pay $648” for her “to ensure she remains safely in Maryland.” She did for her entire life.

What is the price of a human being? Can there ever be a payment in full? How many gallons of blood are required to build a university?

The Jesuits constructed their Catholic empire, including Georgetown, Holy Cross, Georgetown Prep, Gonzaga College High School and more.

How many historically significant institutions in America were not built by Black labor, by Black lives? Whose names do they bear?

Should there be a movement to rename Calvert County?

Swarns’ book is the last part of what I have come to call my racial re-education trifecta. Truth be told, it was not a course in which I deliberately enrolled.

I was born, educated and entered adulthood in the segregated South. Tales about chattel slavery and government-sponsored or -endorsed brutality — raping of women and men; labor exploitation; murder by lynching and other means; social and economic deprivation; ripping apart of families; and the deliberate, intentional destruction of human spirits and souls — were not unfamiliar.

However, I do not recall a life in New Orleans filled with unbearable indignities, although I am sure my great-grandmother, grandmother, grandfather and mother surely endured them. Further, much of my work, including a decade spent as a community organizer, has been focused on creating a more inclusive society, reminding people that there is more that unites us than divides us.

What divides us is what unites us: Slavery is all over America. Slavery is all over all of us.

That much was made clear in Clint Smith’s book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which I wrote about last year. It was made clear inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture — an institution I supported with small financial contributions even before it opened, but that I visited for the first time this year — whose exhibits underscore the horrific global torture endured by Blacks throughout the African diaspora. And now Swarns shines another light in a dark, dark space.

As a young girl, I often spent my Saturdays strolling through the French Quarter. Invariably, I’d stop at the St. Louis Cathedral. I’d light a candle and then I’d sit in a pew at the back of the church.

That’s where Black parishioners, including those who retained their Catholic faith after emancipation, would have been required to sit. Having read Swarns’ book, I wonder to what extent my “choice” of where to sit was the learned behavior of someone trained to see that as her place. How much of that is the unwanted inheritance of slavery?

Photo credit: Georgetown University Healy Hall by Chris Kain

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Jun 20, 2023
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

A sad reminder of what slavery did to this country. Thanks, Jenean McKay

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