Confronting Slavery in the Archives at Georgetown

tags: slavery, archives, Georgetown University

Cassandra Berman is archivist for the Maryland Province Archives at Georgetown University. She tweets @BermanCassandra.


In the fall of 2014, Georgetown University’s student newspaper, the Hoya, ran an article by undergraduate columnist Matthew Quallen titled “Georgetown, Financed by Slave Trading.” Published the month after the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Quallen’s article discussed Jesuit slaveholding and Georgetown’s implication in the slave trade—a history he had learned by chance during a campus tour in his first year of college. The article focused specifically on the 1838 sale of 272 individuals who had been enslaved on Jesuit plantations in and around Maryland. The profits from this sale helped the struggling Jesuit college emerge from substantial debt and paved the way for it to flourish into the institution it is today.

This was the first time many people had heard of Georgetown’s intimate involvement with the slave trade, and it was galvanizing: student activists led a successful campaign to rename two campus buildings that bore the names of the 1838 sale’s architects. In September 2015, the university formed a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. The New York Times published a series of articles examining Jesuit slaveholding and the sale. An organization unaffiliated with the university, the Georgetown Memory Project, began using genealogical research and DNA testing to identify descendants of the 272 individuals sold to slavers in Louisiana. And a robust community of these descendants began organizing, pressing both Georgetown and the Jesuits for information, accountability, and action.

Before the Hoya article, the history of Jesuit slaveholding in North America had not in fact been a secret. Members of the Jesuit community had written about the sale, mostly in passing, since the early 20th century, and a handful of non-Jesuit scholars had been scrutinizing it in varying levels of detail since the 1990s. Always meticulous record keepers, the Jesuits of the Maryland Province maintained significant documentation of their slaveholding past: plantation accounts, financial records, personal reflections on the institution of slavery in diaries and correspondence, and sacramental records that documented births, baptisms, and marriages of enslaved individuals. There were also copious papers related to the 1838 sale, including a remarkably detailed census listing the 272 enslaved people to be sold, featuring individuals’ names, ages, family relationships, plantation affiliations, and, penciled in later, a numerical code indicating which ship transported them in their forced journey to the South.

These records are part of the Archives of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. This wide-ranging collection documents the Jesuit presence in North America since the 1600s, and has been held at Georgetown since 1977, though it remains the property of the Jesuits. Although some materials have been and remain restricted—primarily those created in the latter half of the 20th century—the collection, including materials pertaining to slavery, has been at least nominally available to scholars, students, and genealogists since its arrival at Georgetown.

Even so, the history of Jesuit slaveholding and the story of Georgetown’s reliance on the profits of the 1838 sale were too little discussed; the barriers to accessing the archives documenting this history were too great. Materials could only be used on-site by those with the ability to travel to Georgetown. The collection’s previous finding aids could be obtuse even to seasoned researchers, and they did not always clearly identify materials pertaining to Jesuit slaveholding. And more fundamentally, archival repositories, whether consciously or not, have often been unwelcoming to members of historically marginalized groups.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

comments powered by Disqus