Editor’s Note: In 1838, Georgetown University President Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., sold 272 slaves for $115,000, in part to pay off university debts and keep Georgetown from closing. More than 175 years later, student protests urged the university to confront its history, challenging the names of Mulledy and McSherry Hall but also advocating institutional changes to address current concerns. At the end of this year of confrontation and reconciliation, the conversation has only just begun.
In light of this, for our Year in Review issue, columnist Matthew Quallen looks back on the history of Jesuit slavery, not simply to reflect on the past, but also to contribute to a comprehension of its impact from the lives of the first slaves to the lives of descendants today.
On April 17, a Sunday, a picture appeared above the centerfold of The New York Times. Maxine Crump, a descendant of Cornelius Hawkins, stands in a sugar field in Maringouin, La., where her ancestor worked fetid, unforgiving fields. Hawkins was one of 272 slaves sold in 1838 by Georgetown University to a Louisiana planter for $115,000. A provocative question leads the article: “272 slaves were sold to save Georgetown. What does it owe their descendants?”
The scale of the question is tremendous. Richard Cellini (COL ’84), founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, described a statistical model developed by a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that predicts how human populations grow and produce descendants. According to Cellini, the model predicts that there are 12,000 to 15,000 living descendants of the 272 slaves named in the 1838 sale.
What is most astonishing about this number, 12,000 to 15,000, is its starting point of 272: while Jesuits who ran Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838, they owned many more. Some historians have placed the number as high as 400 at its peak, not including the whole generations that lived in slavery under the Maryland Jesuits from its inception at the turn of the 18th century.
Georgetown’s Jesuits sold dozens of slaves in 1817, then again to Florissant, Mo., in 1835. They sent slaves to St. Louis and Kentucky in the years that followed. They manumitted slaves in southern Maryland before 1838. Slaves who were never sold lived on campus and in Maryland well after the sale.
In light of this, the 272 and Maringouin, La., where the memory project predicts as many as 600 of the 1,100 residents descend from Georgetown’s slaves, join an even larger larger mosaic; 12,000 to 15,000 becomes 20,000-plus. They are essential pieces of a vast diaspora: a centuries-long scattering of the slaves who supported Georgetown that covers the entire country.
Take a map of the United States. Wipe out every state admitted after 1808: every state west of the Mississippi and many of the rest, leaving only the original 13 colonies, Vermont, Kentucky – carved out of Virginia – Tennessee and Ohio. The rump runs along the eastern seaboard, penetrating barely into the interior.
On January 1, 1808, those United States enacted a ban on the international slave trade.
Nine of the 17 existing states had already abolished slavery, never legally sanctioned the practice or begun abolition schemes to gradually put an end to slavery. That left eight slave states: Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland.
Still absent from the Union was the Deep South, particularly the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana — known today for its deep-seated connection with American slavery. That growing interior of the republic would come to host hundreds of thousands of slaves. But these slaves could not come from Africa, Cuba or elsewhere in the Caribbean; the abolition of the international slave trade meant that slave traders had to move slaves from elsewhere in the United States. For this supply, they turned to Maryland and Virginia.
Maryland and Virginia were the most significant slaveholding states in the early republic. Tobacco plantations on the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and the interior of Virginia, including the plantations of the Maryland Jesuits, sucked thousands and thousands of slaves up the waterways of the mid-Atlantic, through Washington, D.C. — then the heart of slave trading in the U.S. — and into generations of captivity.
The two were “breeding states.” Slavers in Maryland and Virginia saw their wealth multiply through generations as their slaves gave birth to new chattel, transforming family life and population growth into asset appreciation.
As demand for slaves grew in the interior and Deep South with the proliferation of cotton, and with the fall of the profitability of tobacco in the 1820s and 1830s, slave owners in Maryland and Virginia began selling their slaves to fulfill the increasing demand from the South.
These slaves were moved south through a network of prisons, overland routes and ships: New Orleans and Mobile, the great slave ports of the South were the destinations. Washington, crawling with slave traders moving the human cargo of the mid-Atlantic, was the point of departure.
Georgetown and its Jesuits contributed to each of these trends. They enslaved blacks for upwards of 160 years, and over generations, their slave holdings multiplied, from the dozens to the hundreds, many of whom spent their entire lives in captivity. There, at the birth of American slavery, the Maryland Jesuits established a place in the top five percent of slaveholders in the United States.
And when they needed cash to save Georgetown, and the price was right, the Maryland Jesuits sold their slaves from Maryland to Louisiana, hitching a ride on a national scattering of slaves from the mid-Atlantic to nearly half the growing country.
In American slavery, many journeys began in Maryland. The Jesuits’ began in 1634, when Fathers Andrew White, S.J., John Altham Gravenor, S.J., and Thomas Gervase, S.J., arrived on Maryland’s shores alongside 300 Catholic settlers.
They disembarked their watery steeds—the Ark and the Dove—and celebrated Mass around an iron cross now suspended in Dahlgren Chapel. For their efforts, the missionaries received from the Calvert governors of Maryland nearly 12,000 acres of land dotting the banks of the Potomac and Chesapeake. These plots would become the Jesuit plantations.
In the 17th century, the Jesuits relied on indentured servants for labor: frequently poor white migrants, debtors or criminals whose labor was owned for a fixed amount of time, often a decade or two.
Change gradually arrived around 1700. The supply of indentured servants staunched, in part because many of Britain’s internal conflicts drew to a close. Meanwhile, the expansion of Brazil and Caribbean sugar production, which required stunning amounts of labor to sustain, encouraged colonial powers to strengthen their access to African slaves.
The Jesuits duly observed this transition, which Winthrop Jordan, history professor and renowned writer, has called an “unthinking decision.” In roughly 1700, the Jesuits began replacing indentured servants on their plantations with black slaves.
For the next 90 years, the Maryland Jesuits focused attention on their farms and their slaves. The mission’s slave holdings grew through purchases, bequests from wealthy parishioners and the passage of time. Whole generations passed on the plantations: people were born into slavery, lived in slavery and died in slavery on the Jesuit plantations in Maryland.
Many of their births on the plantation were recorded by the Jesuits. John, a slave of the Maryland Jesuits, was born on February 22, 1755 in Fort Tobacco Maryland, a Jesuit plantation. His mother was Jenny—noted in flowing hand as Jo’s wife. In May of 1759 – the Jesuit register does not record a precise date – his brother Peter was born, followed, in 1761, by their sister Catherine. John, Peter and Catherine were born 80 years before the 1838 sale; their parents earlier still. It seems likely that none of them escaped slavery in their lifetimes.
In 1789, the Jesuit plantations gained new purpose. The Maryland Jesuits founded a school on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland: Georgetown. Meeting that year under the moniker of the “General Society at White Marsh,” the Jesuits formulated a plan. Every three years, they would inspect the plantations and sell “supernumerary” slaves — converting the growth of their slaveholdings into broken families and cash. This cash would go into a general fund.
The next time they met, in 1792, the purpose of this maneuver became clear. The Jesuits appointed a board of directors for Georgetown College and authorized it to spend from the general fund to build a campus. From its inception then, a tight financial connection bound together Georgetown and the Jesuit plantations — and their slaves.
Slaves supported the growth of Georgetown in more than financial ways. The Jesuits deployed slaves from the plantations to work on the grounds of the school, probably in the numerous outbuildings that surrounded the Hilltop. When these slaves became too old to work, the Jesuits returned them to the plantations.
In 1814, John McElroy, a Georgetown Jesuit, recorded that there were 12 slaves on campus, out of only 102 people. The year before he had recorded 13.
The difference may be explained by the flight of Isaac, a slave at Georgetown College. In January 1814, Isaac fled Georgetown. The next day, he was captured in Baltimore. In response, the Jesuits sold Isaac to a slaver in Hartford County, Md. He may have ended his journey on a plantation in Maryland; slavers may have sold Isaac even farther afield.
In 1820, an Irish Jesuit named Peter Kenney visited the Jesuit plantations in Maryland at the behest of the Father General of the Society of Jesus to report on the practices and conditions. In his document, Kenney devoted particular attention to the question of slaveholding.
He observed that the Jesuits were whipping women, even pregnant women. He noted as well that in some cases the Jesuits had tied up these women in the parlors of the priest’s home to administer whippings. Kenney recommended that this practice, which he called “indecorous,” cease.
Most traces of that era are gone, but some linger. Slave cabins on the Jesuit plantations still remain. When slaves died on campus, they were buried in the vicinity, along with free blacks and slaves from the rest of Holy Trinity Parish. Charles, a slave owned by the university, died during a cholera outbreak in 1832. As with other deaths between 1817 and 1833, he was interred in the Old College Ground, a segregated graveyard that was removed in 1953 — and now is the site of the Northeast Triangle Residence Hall.
During the 1820s and 1830s, the terrain of Catholic America changed rapidly on three fronts. Catholics poured into the country and its cities, transforming a largely rural, slaveholding populace into one that was increasingly urban and immigrant. A new generation of Jesuits, skeptical of the role of slavery within the Society, began to take charge, helmed by Fr. William McSherry, S.J., and Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J. And the Jesuit education mission rapidly expanded into the interior of the country.
The costs of the first two pieces of this dynamic mix are now well-known.
McSherry and Mulledy devoted increasingly significant resources to Georgetown, believing the changing demographics of American Catholicism required urban schools to become the Jesuits’ new focus. They considered the slaves dispensable.
From the plantations, McSherry wrote a series of reports in 1833, lamenting their longstanding inability to furnish enough money to support Georgetown and cooking up a plan of action: Sell the slaves. In an apparent dress rehearsal for the 1838 sale, McSherry managed to sell 25 slaves to a planter from Louisiana named Henry Johnson.
Meanwhile, at Georgetown, Mulledy was building. In the same year as McSherry’s reports, work commenced on what would come to be Mulledy Hall, a forbiddingly large brick structure in the heart of the old campus. Enrollment had doubled, facilities and programs had bloomed and Mulledy proved able to attract more exceptional students to Georgetown.
In 1837, land speculation in the Midwest led the economy to collapse in the Panic of 1837, and Mulledy and McSherry’s agendas collided. Georgetown fell into dire financial straits. Without an infusion of nearly $25,000 in cash, the procurator of the Society suggested that it may be necessary to shut down Georgetown.
So Mulledy and McSherry hatched their plan. In 1838, they sold the vast majority of the society’s slaves — 272 in all — to that same Louisiana planter, Henry Johnson, and his business partner, a doctor named Jesse Batey, for over $115,000.
Mulledy and McSherry, who was then-dying of stomach cancer, took a large portion of the down payment and paid down the most severe of Georgetown’s debts, defusing the university’s financial crisis.
Pens inked paper in Washington, and in Maryland, a terrible journey began in response. Mulledy, slavers and sheriffs rounded up hundreds of slaves without warning, herding infants and grandparents alike onto ships bound ultimately for Louisiana. According to Rev. Thomas Lilly, who was present at the scene, many slaves wept or prayed amid the pandemonium.
The Jesuits’ human cargo descended from the Maryland plantations on Washington, D.C., to be loaded in Alexandria and transported to Point Coupee and Iberville parishes, mirroring a journey taken by hundreds of thousands in the last decades of American slavery, a dreaded passage from the breeding states of Maryland and Virginia to the cotton-growing states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Many of those 272 slaves’ journeys ended on a plantation growing sugar — in a bayou a few miles north of a town called Maringouin.
The journey to Maringouin, which has captured the attention of Georgetown students, faculty, staff, alumni and—under intense media exposure—much of the nation, is the best-known of the many strands that make up the Georgetown diaspora of slaves. But the reach of Georgetown slaves extends beyond that particular voyage.
There are the 25 slaves sold by McSherry and dispatched to Louisiana in 1835. There are the slaves who remained at Georgetown; financial records note the presence of slaves on campus more than a decade after the sale.
There are the slaves who remained in Maryland, in some cases hidden away by Jesuits opposed to the sale. Joseph Zwinge, a Jesuit historian, interviewed a woman, “Aunt Louisa,” in southern Maryland around 1912. Aunt Louisa, who may be Louisa Mason of St. Mary’s County, Md., claimed to have been warned to flee into the woods in 1838. The 1900 census lists Mason’s date of birth: 1812. She had a son named Robert, with wife and children of his own.
And there are the slaves that accompanied the Jesuits westward as the Society expanded its educational reach, who faced their own terrible journeys.
In 1823, the Maryland Jesuits agreed to relocate their novitiate north of a small school in St. Louis — a school that would become Saint Louis University. A contingent of Jesuits headed west to establish the novitiate and later helm the fledgling institution; they brought with them from the Maryland plantations a half-dozen slaves: Moses and Nancy, Thomas and Molly, Isaac and Susan, each husband and wife. The Jesuits forced the couples to leave their children behind; they expected their slaves would produce more children in Missouri.
During the 800-mile journey over land, the slaves held up the rear of the party, carrying the heaviest supplies on a clumsy wagon. When they arrived at a river, they split onto two rafts. One held the Jesuits and their sacred items. The other held the slaves and the heavier suppliers, precariously weighing down the timber float as it rushed downriver. The slaves clung to their rosaries, fearing the worst. They survived, disembarked and trod forward on foot.
When the Jesuits and their slaves arrived in St. Louis, they went north to Florissant Farm — now a suburb bordering Ferguson, Mo. The six slaves were crammed into a single cabin under awful conditions. They worked from five in the morning to the evening. The Jesuits whipped and beat the slaves, especially Fr. Charles Felix Van Quickenborne, S.J., the leader of the contingent who was nicknamed “Napoleon.”
In October 1833, Thomas Brown, one of the Jesuit slaves brought from Maryland to St. Louis, sent a letter of appeal to the provincial of the Maryland Jesuits, William McSherry. Brown, who had then been a slave of the Jesuits for 38 years, begged to be allowed to purchase his freedom, desperately seeking to escape Saint Louis University and its president, Fr. Peter J. Verhaegen, S.J.
“We live at present in a rotten log house so old and decayed that at every blast of wind we are afraid of our lives,” Brown wrote, as winter approached. He continued: “Father Verhaegen wants me and my wife to live in the loft of one of the outhouses where there is no fireplace. … Cold will kill both me and my wife here.”
Even as conditions remained brutal, the number of slaves at Florissant and Saint Louis University, where the Jesuits set the slaves building the institution, grew quickly. Molly and Susan each had multiple children. And the St. Louis Jesuits wrote to the superior multiple times — including to McSherry in 1834 — to have more slaves sent from Maryland to St. Louis. More slaves, often whole families, set out on the same perilous trek to Missouri.
From Missouri, the Maryland Jesuits’ slaves travelled even further. Along with French Jesuits, Jesuits at Florissant travelled to St. Mary’s Hall in Kentucky in the late 1830s. They brought slaves from Saint Louis University, who were themselves slaves from Maryland.
In 1848, they repeated the pattern. St. Joseph’s Hall opened in Kentucky; slaves from Missouri, by way of Maryland, accompanied another founding. The Jesuits built a slaveholding network that extended its tendrils into the heart of the country.
In 1862, as abolition and cannons rumbled across the United States, the Jesuits at Missouri wondered whether they should manumit their slaves. By then, there were 24 Jesuit slaves in St. Louis — many directly from Maryland and Georgetown, many their children. Moses, one of the first six slaves to survive the journey west from Maryland’s swampy plantations, had just died at the age of 85, one more Jesuit slave who would not outlive his captivity.
When 1863 — the Emancipation Proclamation — and 1865 — the end of the Civil War — struck, the diaspora of Georgetown slaves already stretched from Maryland and Kentucky to Missouri and Louisiana. As Jim Crow and Reconstruction battled in the late-19th century, and the Great Migration of the mid-20th century persisted in the face of southern violence, the web spread.
And now, seven generations later, it is difficult to imagine where the diaspora might not now reach — surely, among the thousands of descendants of the Maryland Jesuits’ slaves, there are residents of New York, of Chicago, of Los Angeles, of Washington. Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, a New Orleans native, genealogist and descendant of Nace Butler, whom the Georgetown Jesuits sold in 1838, now lives in Spokane, Wash.
But on the drifting bayous and sugar cane farms of Maringouin, La., history remains indefatigably alive, and Georgetown’s place in the American story — one whose success is linked inextricably to slavery, its westward spread and the capital it provided to jumpstart a sleepy colonial economy — becomes especially clear.
Today, Maringouin, located about 15 miles west of Baton Rouge and bounded on either side by the snarled waterways of the Mississippi Delta, is small and shrinking. At the 2000 census, its population was 1,262; at the 2010 census, its population was 1,098. In the 1800s, Maringouin bordered sugar plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves. Maringouin still produces sugar, along with corn. In 2014, the median household income was approximately $21,000.
Maxine Crump, a former Maringouin resident and Georgetown descendant who became a news reporter in New Orleans, was returning home when she learned that she was a descendant of Cornelius Hawkins, sold in 1838. “I grew up along the bayou. And my parents grew up on the bayou, my grandparents grew up on the bayou,” Crump told The Hoya. “And now I know why we’re all along the bayou: because all plantations are along the waterways.
“That’s what it means to be sold down the river.”
For more stories on the legacy of the Georgetown-owned slaves, visit thehoya.com