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Georgetown University Sheds Light on Slaveholding Past

By Doris Yu

April 29, 2016 — In 1838, high-ranking Jesuits affiliated with Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana, an effort to pay off debts and keep the nation’s first Catholic university afloat. It was a tragic chapter in Georgetown’s history and one the university is shedding light on today.

At a series of events recently hosted by Georgetown, including a symposium and campus walking tour, the university examined its history of slavery both on its Washington, D.C. campus and in the surrounding neighborhood. The events were held to commemorate Emancipation Day, when, on April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln freed 3,100 slaves in the District of Columbia.


Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation offered historical walking tours of sites linked to slaveholding on campus.

The Emancipation Day symposium offered film screenings, an archive exhibition, book discussions, lectures, panels, an interfaith service and a historical walking tour of sites on and around campus related to Georgetown's slaveholding past. These events were coordinated by the Georgetown University Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, established by university president John J. DeGioia in September 2015 to explore the university’s historical relationship with slavery and submit recommendations for acknowledgment and retribution. Led by Georgetown professor of history Father David Collins, SJ, the working group includes faculty, staff, students, alumni and fellow Jesuits Father Matthew Carnes, SJ, and Father Kevin O’Brien, SJ.


The walking tour began with Freedom Hall, formerly known as Mulledy Hall, which had been named after Father Thomas Mulledy, SJ.

Last fall, at the working group’s suggestion, the university held a ceremony to rename Mulledy and McSherry Halls on campus, named after Father Thomas Mulledy, SJ, and Father William McSherry, SJ, the former university presidents who made the decision to sell the 272 slaves. They are now known as Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.


The walking tours included historical sites related to lives of African-Americans living in the Georgetown neighborhood. The Wormley School, now converted to a luxury condominium building, was a public school built in 1885 to educate black children in the community.

“It is my hope that their work will assist our community in gaining a fuller understanding of the historical record and the contemporary aspects of race and culture in our nation,” DeGioia said in a statement about the working group. “We are at our very best when we support each other in the difficult work of confronting history and racism and when we engage the resources of our Catholic and Jesuit identity to provide a context and a foundation for our work.”


The Chapel of Saint Ignatius Loyola, the original building of Jesuit-founded Holy Trinity Church, once counted slaves among its parishioners.

The Jesuits of the Maryland Province issued a statement acknowledging the slaveholding of the university and the province. “Today more than ever, Jesuits and their collaborators in ministry react with dismay and regret to this chapter in the order’s history,” the statement said. “We continually call attention to and condemn this appalling aspect of early American culture and the way in which Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular participated in it.

“Conscious of the participation of Jesuits in the origins of our country’s racial problems, we commit ourselves to contributing to their solution. We desire reconciliation and oneness in the face of the errors we find in our history.”

To learn more about the Georgetown University Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, please visit the group’s website here.

Additional digital resources and original documentary material related to slaveholding are available to the public at the Georgetown Slavery Archive, an online repository created by the working group.





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