On Sept. 19, Georgetown marked the official launch of a new interdisciplinary center that examines the history of slavery and its legacies at the university, in Washington, DC, and in Catholic communities in the U.S. through creative projects, public programs and research.
To inaugurate the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, the university hosted a live musical performance that grapples with Georgetown’s own history with slavery and viscerally brings to life the stories of the children, women and men who were enslaved.
Associate Professor Carlos Simon performed “Requiem for the Enslaved,” a requiem he composed to honor the 272 individuals who were enslaved and sold by the Maryland Province of the Jesuits in 1838, the proceeds of which benefitted Georgetown. In 2022, the requiem was nominated for a Grammy.
“Professor Simon’s Grammy-nominated requiem offers a model of what Georgetown’s new Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies hopes to foster and achieve,” Founding Director Adam Rothman said at the event. “We must learn our history well and teach it fully using all the tools at our disposal — including the arts — to do so.”
The center, which opened in March, connects faculty and student researchers across the university and supports new partnerships and scholarship, ranging from digitizing archives in the Library to storytelling through art, theater and music.
“This new center that we launch today will provide a permanent home for academic engagement with the history of slavery and its place in the history of our community and in our nation,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said.
Bringing History to Life
On the day of the launch event, Simon sat behind a grand piano on the stage of Gaston Hall. As the opening notes of the requiem rang out, he closed his eyes for a brief moment.
The day was a long time coming. Four years earlier, Simon had joined the Department of Performing Arts in Georgetown’s College of Arts & Sciences, and was inspired to address its history with enslavement from an artistic perspective.
He walked the grounds of the Louisiana plantation where many of the enslaved children, women and men had been forcibly moved and recorded the sound of the breeze. He listened to the stories of their Descendants. He researched their names in Georgetown’s Slavery Archive. He worked with Marco Pavé, Georgetown’s hip-hop artist-in-residence, to infuse spoken word, hip-hop and African American spirituals into the Catholic liturgical music form.
Now, three years after the project began, he was performing the piece for the first time at Georgetown.
“In rehearsal today I almost had a moment because it’s been three years, and this is the first time we actually performed this piece on this soil. Georgetown soil. It felt surreal,” he said. “It was hard to fight back [the tears]. The ghosts are here, the ancestors are here, and I can see them being happy that we’re here and finally made it great.”
After the performance, Simon, Pavé and Michael Avitabile, the founder and executive director of Hub New Music, which performed the requiem, discussed the inspiration and creative process of the composition in a panel moderated by Nolan Williams, Jr., the Kennedy Center’s inaugural Social Practice Resident who has, through his company NEWorks Productions, produced Georgetown’s annual Let Freedom Ring Celebration that honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the past 20 years.
“We knew we were here for something important, a historical mission,” Pavé said of his creative process. “I had to really start to listen, get silent, go into my studio and hear. … I had to learn how to say the words in the right way that would honor them as they wanted to be honored.”
For Rothman, the requiem breathes life into history, into archival records, that give them new meaning today — a goal he hopes to continue in the center.
“Carlos has taken these documents, these scraps of paper that are hundreds of years old, and he’s quite literally made them sing — an incredible feat,” he said. “It’s a mode of storytelling that gives us access to history that historians like myself can’t really achieve. I love the collaboration between librarians and archivists, historians and musicians and creative people who can tell stories about this history in new ways.”
To close out the ceremony, Rev. Ebony Grisom, director for Protestant Life, lit one of the candles from the 2017 prayer service, Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope, in which Georgetown and the Society of Jesus, apologized for the historical role of both institutions in the enslavement of people of African descent. The candle features a sankofa bird, a West African symbol that expresses the importance of carrying knowledge from the present forward, Grisom said.
“The candle reads, ‘remembrance, contrition, hope,’ naming not only that prayer service but the spirit with which we begin this afternoon,” she said. “I light this candle as a sankofa to fetch the spirit of the apology offered in 2017 and to carry it into our present, symbolizing our commitment to the ongoing work of remembrance, contrition and hope.”
The Center’s Projects
Since its opening in the spring, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies has continued to connect and highlight existing projects at Georgetown on enslavement and spur new research and collaborations.
The Georgetown Slavery Archive, now a project connected to the center, 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 center also invites graduate students conducting original research on the history of slavery and its legacies to join its research workshop. On Oct. 5, the center, in partnership with the Office of the President, will host a book event with Rachel Swarns, the author of “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church,” at Georgetown.
Rothman said he hopes the center helps community members learn more about the history of American slavery, beyond Georgetown. He also hopes that the center brings people together.
“It will bring faculty and students together. It will bring people together across disciplines and units across the university, just as it has brought myself and Carlos together from our own different modes,” he said. “I also hope it will bring the Descendant community into conversation with folks here at Georgetown and across the country who are interested in the history of American slavery and its legacies and reverberations today.”
Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation at Georgetown
The Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies is part of Georgetown’s continued work to more deeply understand, confront and respond to its own history and the continued legacies of enslavement in the U.S.
In early September, the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation announced $27 million in commitments from Georgetown and the Society of Jesus, including $10 million from Georgetown, to support this charitable foundation established in 2021 to focus on racial healing and educational advancement for Descendant communities. This follows a $1 million implementation grant from Georgetown to the Foundation when it was first established.
In September, Georgetown students led and hosted an event with U.S. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) to promote the recognition of a national Slavery Remembrance Day. The event featured musical performances, dancers from the Black Movements Dance Theatre, and speakers, including members of the Descendant community, who reflected on the past and the contributions of Black Americans in shaping history and urged audience members to promote justice going forward.
“We want Descendants of the enslaved to feel empowered by the hard work of their ancestors and understand that, yes, enslavement was horrible, however, we can take the hardship of the past and make a better future,” said Jaden Cobb (C’25), who led planning for the event.“I think my ancestors who were enslaved will be very proud to know that their grandson is planning an event to recognize them and is not scared to talk about that. He comes from a lineage of enslavement, but [is] actually proud to talk about that.”
This fall, Georgetown will be awarding the second half of its annual Reconciliation Fund, which supports projects that benefit communities of Descendants whose ancestors were enslaved on Jesuit plantations in Maryland and sold and forcibly moved to Louisiana in 1838.
The university awarded its first recipients last spring. The Southern Maryland Descendant Gatherings, an inaugural recipient, recently hosted a four-day event to unite more than 300 members of the Descendant community, some of whom were visiting the land where their ancestors lived for the first time. The event included tours of former Jesuit plantations, Catholic churches, historical sites and gatherings to engage with history and connect with one another.
“It was a celebration of faith, family and unity,” said Henrietta Pike, chairperson of the Southern Maryland Descendant Gathering Committee. “It was an emotional event touching everyone in attendance.”
Simon’s “Requiem for the Enslaved” closed with one word that repeated: Ashé, an African word from the Yoruba religion that, among different meanings, speaks to the power to act on one’s words. Simon included it as the final blessing to ancestors and as a parting word for listeners.
“It’s a sendoff for those who are in the audience to reflect on what they heard and to ask the question of themselves, what can I do?” he said. “What is my understanding of our collective history as Americans, and how do I fit into this puzzle? If you’re white, Black, Asian, it’s our collective duty to do something about what’s happening in our world.”