A student studies a document on a laptop
Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Opens New Center To Study Slavery and Its Legacies

The center connects faculty and student researchers across the university and will sponsor new partnerships and scholarship on slavery and its legacies at Georgetown, in Washington, DC, and in Catholic communities in the U.S.

“Georgetown continues to be engaged in a long-term effort to understand and respond to our institution’s historical relationship to slavery,” says Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “The Center will support rigorous faculty and student research, innovative teaching, creative projects and collaborative programs that sustain Georgetown’s commitment to facing our history.”  

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies held its inaugural event on March 18 with a musical performance and documentary screening about the history of jazz in New Orleans since the era of slavery and ongoing musical traditions — a tie to the center’s exploration of the past and present, said the center’s Founding Director Adam Rothman.

“It’s not just about the past — although we do want to incubate rigorous scholarship on history,” Adam Rothman, a professor in the Department of History and curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive, said of the center. “We also want to think about the echoes and reverberations of the history of slavery in the present, whether that’s in political institutions, economic life or in culture.”

Genesis of the Center

Professor Adam Rothman, founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, stands in front of a screen with a document on it. He holds up one hand and talks, wearing a suit jacket and tie.
Adam Rothman is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, a professor in the Department of History and curator for the Georgetown Slavery Archive.

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies was first envisioned in 2016, when the university’s Working Group of Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, a group of faculty, staff, students and alumni engaged in reflecting and responding to Georgetown’s involvement in slavery, recommended an academic home to study enslavement.

Rothman, in collaboration with faculty, staff, undergraduate students and members of the Descendant community, began building the foundation for the center through the Georgetown Slavery Archive (GSA). The Archive has digitized more than 450 items related to the history of slavery at Georgetown, slaveholding by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus and the lives of enslaved people held by Georgetown and the Jesuits. The GSA has also engaged undergraduate and graduate students to participate in research and transcription events. 

“We’re starting the center on top of a very strong foundation of work that’s already been conducted by Georgetown faculty in collaboration with members of the Descendant community,” Rothman said.

Current Projects

Two women look at an archived document at a transcription event hosted by the Georgetown Slavery Archive.
The Georgetown Slavery Archive hosted a transcription event in Riggs Library in April 2019.

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies connects and highlights existing projects at Georgetown on enslavement and will spur new research and collaborations. 

Lauinger Library’s project, On These Grounds, for example, is a digital initiative that describes and provides access to the history of enslavement found in American college and university archival materials. The project is led by historians and librarians from Georgetown, the University of Virginia and Michigan State University.

Another partner includes Carlos Simon, a Grammy-nominated assistant professor in the Department of Performing Arts in the College of Arts & Sciences, who composed a requiem to honor the lives of those who were enslaved by the Maryland Province of the Jesuits. The Center will work with Simon and other affiliated faculty who bring artistic, religious, cultural, philosophical, social-scientific and historical perspectives to their work.  

“It’s important for people to understand the scope and range of work that’s being done around the university connected to the history of slavery and its legacies,” Rothman said. “The Center will pull us together so we’re not just working in our little silos and can sponsor new projects and endeavors.”

Maurice Jackson, an associate professor in the Department of History and African American Studies and affiliated faculty member in the Center, served in the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. He is working on two books: Halfway to Freedom: The Struggles and the Strivings of Black Folk in Washington, DC, to be published by Duke University Press, that chronicles African Americans’ fight for equality in DC; and a book for Georgetown University Press about sports, music and Africa in DC’s history, both which fit within the center’s work, he said. 

“I was vocal with the leaders of Georgetown on the immediate establishment of the Center and supportive of Professor Adam Rothman leading it,” he said. “The Center will also work with the Georgetown Racial Justice Institute to research and publish studies related to the fight to alleviate the oppression of Black people, and it will involve the people of DC in its efforts.”

Center Events

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies’ inaugural event included a screening of City of a Million Dreams, a documentary about the jazz funeral tradition in New Orleans that was directed by alumnus Jason Berry (C’71)

In his opening remarks, Berry shared he recently screened the documentary at a former Episcopal church in Louisiana, where many of the 272 enslaved men, women and children first arrived after they were sold and forcibly moved by the Maryland Province of the Jesuits in 1838. Many of their names are listed on church pillars there — “a very moving moment for me …” Berry said. “We have to understand the past if we’re going to build a reasonable future.”

Berry’s film features Michael White, a renowned clarinetist, composer and the Charles Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities of New Orleans Music and Culture at Xavier University of Louisiana, who performed at the event with the Dr. Michael White Quartet. 

“At the time jazz was created, we were struggling with that idea of Black visibility …” White said during a panel discussion with Rothman and Berry after the documentary. “Jazz music symbolized bringing forth your own person and personality. So by having your own sound, it was a way of combating invisibility. It was a way of voicing and expressing your true feelings through the music.”

Mélisande Short-Colomb stands on a stage with her hands crossed in front of her. Behind her is an illuminated screen that says "Here I am," the title of her performance.
In the performance, “Here I Am,” Mélisande Short-Colomb weaves narrative, music and imagery together to explore her relationship with the Society of Jesus, which enslaved and sold her ancestors in 1838.

​​In addition to its launch event, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies co-sponsored the Laboratory for Global Performance & Politics’ Here I Am, a performance by Mélisande Short-Colomb that wove narrative, music and imagery together to explore Short-Colomb’s relationship with the Society of Jesus, which enslaved and sold her ancestors in 1838.

On April 17, the center hosted an interactive event to mark DC Emancipation Day, the day in which Washington, DC, commemorates the abolishment of slavery in the district in 1862. The center invited community members to transcribe archival runaway slave advertisements from 18th and 19-century newspapers in the Georgetown neighborhood.

“A big part of reconciliation is telling the truth about history and facing what actually happened,” Rothman says. “And the center can be pivotal in encouraging new scholarship about the history of slavery, promoting innovative teaching and sponsoring public programming that brings the campus community together and connects us to the public outside the gates who are interested in this history.

“I hope that the center will deepen and broaden people’s knowledge about this history.”

Learn more about how Georgetown recognized DC Emancipation Day.