April 18, 2017 – An apology from Georgetown and the Society of Jesus’ Maryland Province for their roles in the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved individuals for the university’s benefit took place today in the company of more than 100 descendants.
“Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned,” said Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, during a morning Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope. “We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry.”
The university created the liturgy in partnership with members of the descendant community, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States.
The week also provided opportunities for members of the descendant community to connect with one another and with Jesuits through a private vigil on Monday night, a descendant-only dinner on Tuesday evening and tours of the Maryland plantation where their ancestors were enslaved.
Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant of the Harris and Ware families and president of the GU272 Descendants Association, spoke at length at the liturgy about the 272 enslaved people, her ancestors and her Catholic faith.
“The ability to transcend the realities of this life in this country has been a necessary tool in the survival kit of my people,” she said. “For the 272, I believe that their Catholic faith enabled them to transcend.
“No matter how incongruous their existence was with the gospel of God’s love and protection, they clung to their faith.”
Isaac Hawkins was the first enslaved person listed in the 1838 sale document.
Anne Marie Becraft Hall, formerly known as McSherry Hall and renamed Remembrance Hall two years ago, is named for a free woman of color who established a school in the town of Georgetown for black girls.
Becraft later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest active Roman Catholic sisterhood in the Americas established by women of African descent.
Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., and Rev. William McSherry, S.J., were two Jesuits at Georgetown who played significant roles in the 1838 sale.
“Slavery remains the original evil of our Republic – an evil that our university was complicit in – a sin that tore apart families,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said during the liturgy, “that through great violence, denied and rejected the dignity and humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers. We lay this truth bare – in sorrowful apology and communal reckoning.”
Rev. Robert Hussey, S.J., Provincial of the Maryland Province, and DeGioia met with descendants in the afternoon.
The liturgy and building dedications were recommendations of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation in September 2016.
“Our work as a group was to help tear down the walls, the walls of mystery and silence and [the] unknown surrounding Georgetown’s historical ties to the institution of slavery,” said working group member Connor Maytnier (C’17) at the dedication.
A Journey Together
Karran Harper Royal, a descendant of the Queen and Mahoney families, thanked Georgetown for its steps toward acknowledging its ties with slavery, particularly the students who took their concerns about the university’s history to the administration in 2015.
“The actions of Georgetown students have placed all of us on a journey together toward honoring our enslaved ancestors by working toward healing and reconciliation,” she said. “Our history has shown us that the vestiges of slavery are a continuum that began with the kidnapping of our people from our motherland to keeping them in bondage with the brutality of American chattle slavery, Jim Crow, segregation … the school-to-prison pipeline and the over-incarceration of people of color.”
Understanding and Rebirth
Jessica Tilson, an Isaac Hawkins descendant, presented DeGioia last summer with a jar of soil from the West Oak Plantation in Louisiana where her ancestors toiled.
During an afternoon Tree Ceremony and Libation Ritual for Ancestors the soil was spread over the roots of a white oak tree, chosen because the tree is indigenous to both Maryland and Louisiana.
“To me, for them to say they’re sorry and then for them to publically announce what they did to my ancestors, I’m happy,” Tilson said.
Members of the descendant and Georgetown communities read the names of the 272 men, women, and children sold in 1838.
White lilies, which appear on the shield of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, were planted at the base of the tree to symbolize rebirth.
After the ceremony, Georgetown’s Black Movements Dance Theatre performed.
“This is a moment for all of us to more deeply understand our history, and to envision a new future informed and shaped by our past and the values we uphold,” DeGioia said at the building dedication.