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May 9, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 14

COMMENTARY

Slavery at Georgetown

Faced with mounting debt to keep Georgetown University open, Father Thomas Mulledy, president of the Jesuit institution, felt he would ease the university’s financial crisis by selling 272 slaves from Jesuit-run plantations in Maryland to two planation owners in Louisiana. The debt, according to records, was $47,654.54.

The bill of sale was dated Nov. 29, 1838. The slaves, who ranged in age from babies to the elderly, were taken from the plantations in Maryland to the port of Alexandria and forced to board boats in crowded conditions to await a new life with “new owners.”

“Know all men by these presents, that I, Thomas F. Mulledy of Georgetown, District of Columbia, have bargained & sold, & by these presents do bargain, sell & deliver unto Henry Johnson, of the Parish of St. James, State of Louisiana, the following negroes,” he wrote in the certificate of sale.

It seems incredible in this day and age that any American, let alone a Catholic priest who promoted higher education, would sanction such a deal. But it happened.

Father Mulledy directed that the slave families not be separated and that all of the money from the sale go toward Jesuit education. But even still, why was the sale even made? And how trustworthy was Mr. Johnson, the new owner, in following out the stipulation of not separating family members?

With this shameful episode as part of its history, Georgetown has sought to disassociate itself from two Jesuit presidents who were involved. The former Mulledy Hall, which was built as a dormitory, has been renamed Freedom Hall. McSherry Hall, named for former president Father William McSherry, who advised the sale, is now called Remembrance Hall.

More obviously needs to be done. Some have suggested that “descendants” of these 272 slaves be given scholarships to Georgetown. Some have suggested that cash payments to these slave descendants be made.

But how would the university be able to determine who are these descendants after more than 175 years since the sale? Just using words like “the sale” remind one of the inhumane way African slaves were treated.

Georgtown University President John De Gioia has established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to make recommendations on how Georgetown might publicly recognize the past wrong and address concerns of how to make reparation.

It may seem like a timid step, but ongoing dialogue about why something is wrong and how we can counteract it is always a start. At least it gets people engaged and focused on a forward approach.

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