April 16, 2018 — In honor of Emancipation Day, Georgetown University celebrated the legacies of Anne Marie Becraft, a 19th-century African-American education pioneer, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence (OSP), the first black female religious order in the country. Emancipation Day marks the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing an act on April 16, 1862, that ended slavery in the District of Columbia.
Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman of color, founded one of the first schools for black girls in Georgetown in 1820. Becraft later joined the Oblate Sisters, the oldest active Roman Catholic sisterhood in the Americas established by women of African descent.
In April 2017, in keeping with the recommendations of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, the building once named for a priest involved with the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people by the Jesuits was rededicated as Anne Marie Becraft Hall.
Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown, moderated a panel discussion with Marcia Hall, OSP vocation director, and Diane Batts Morrow, associate professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Georgia.
“I'm struck by some of the ways that the Oblate sisters were, in many ways, doing the work that black women across the country were doing in terms of filling that gap between what the state provided and what people of color needed and between what the Catholic Church said and what they were actually doing to help people of color,” said Chatelain, who also served on Georgetown’s SMR working group.
The Oblate Sisters order was established in 1828 and today continues its work in Baltimore; Miami; Buffalo, New York; and Costa Rica.
“Their historical experience — their survival as a community of [religious] women ... depended on God’s providence and on their exercise of agency on their own behalf,” said Batts Morrow, who wrote “Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860.” “At a time when people looked askance at education for black people, the sisters looked at education as vital.”
The order opened St. Frances Academy, a Catholic school for black girls in Baltimore, in 1828. It is the oldest continuously operating, predominantly African-American Catholic high school in the country. [Source: Georgetown University]