Owning Up to History


September 1, 2016

Owning Up to History

by David J. Collins

The Jesuit cemetery in St. Inigoes, Md., used to be surrounded by tobacco fields. Over the course of roughly 150 years, those fields were worked by hundreds of slaves owned by the Jesuits. In June, I sat in that cemetery, as a priest and a history professor at Georgetown University, with 16 Jesuit seminarians. We discussed what had happened there in 1838, when several hundred men, women and children were rounded up by the churchmen and their hired agents and transported first by wagon, then by ship to plantations in Louisiana.

I tell this history to seminarians every year. Both as historian and as priest, I am convinced that the past matters in the present. That is one reason I did not hesitate to lead the working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation that has as its goals the recovery of a neglected history and the pursuit of present-day reconciliation at Georgetown. The group’s recommendations for how best to acknowledge and recognize the school’s historical relationship with slavery will be released on Thursday.

Image result for Georgetown University and slavery

The 1838 sale is the most harrowing story I tell the seminarians. But it is hardly the only such story. The visit to the plantations is a chance to teach them that the Jesuits in colonial North America and the early United States owned more than 1,000 slaves on Maryland plantations, as well as in the Midwest and Deep South. Few of the slaves were emancipated until the law required it.

This slave labor generated revenue for Catholic pastoral and educational foundations. Revenue from the sale of these men, women and children regularly supported a growing network of missions, parishes and schools. In 1838 such revenue saved Georgetown from serious debt and settled a dispute with the archbishop of Baltimore, who had wanted the plantations for himself. But even in the 1780s as church officials were planning to open Georgetown, revenues from the sale of “supernumerary” slaves were already targeted for the school’s operations.

In telling this history of slavery to the seminarians, I am also handing on what I learned myself as a first-year Jesuit nearly 30 years ago. The history of the Jesuits in colonial Maryland beginning in 1634 has so many proud chapters — of adventurousness in the face of the unknown, of resoluteness in answer to state-sponsored religious bigotry, of creativity and generosity in response to pastoral need. But there is a darker side to that history: Racism, hypocrisy and brutality are part of it, too. Two centuries of Jesuit slaveholding and slave-trading demonstrate that. I will not let the young Jesuits take pride in and inspiration from a select set of uplifting episodes without challenging them to grapple with our history’s offenses as well.

I learned that perspective on history — that the failures need to be claimed as much as the successes — not in the United States but in Germany, when I was a student there. I still remember how startled I was by the frankness of a fellow Jesuit explaining that as a German he had no right to take pride in Bach and Brahms without taking responsibility for Bergen-Belsen and Birkenau.

That was not how I had learned my American history, in particular the history of slavery. Of course we had learned in school that slavery was deplorable. But as we processed its implications among ourselves, our responsibility was subtly attenuated with the suggestion that the Civil War, Reconstruction and civil rights legislation had paid the historical debt, as if hitting a reset button on race relations. And besides, as I remember, the reasoning of my circle of grade-school friends — mostly the grandchildren of Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants — was that our families had arrived too late to have a share in any culpability.

American history is replete with such cruelty and degradation, so much so that the figures can feel too large to fathom — like the one million slaves forcibly relocated to the Deep South in the 19th century. And exactly herein lies the value of the Jesuit history: The story of the sale that saved Georgetown draws our attention to 272 specific people, and meticulous Jesuit record keeping unwittingly spares these victims the final indignity of forced anonymity. We know the people’s names; when they were born, married and buried; whom they were sold with and whom they were separated from. We can trace their family connections, sometimes even to the present.Image result for Georgetown University and slavery

Several of Charles Hill’s ancestors were among people the Jesuits sold to a Louisiana slave owner to ensure the survival of Georgetown. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Those 272 biographies sting in a way a statistic of one million can’t. This is what makes the Jesuit case compelling, useful to study and promising for communities with a particular connection to it, like Georgetown University, the Jesuits and the descendants of the slaves. This story cries out its injustice against our American tendency to distance ourselves from the ugly realities in our history.

Slavery is our history, and we are its heirs. America would not be America except for its deplorable history of slavery. There will be no “liberty and justice for all” until we understand that, not just Georgetown University and the Roman Catholic Church, but we as a nation.

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