How top universities owe existence to enslavement funds

The 272: The families who were enslaved and sold to build the American Catholic church by Rachel L Swarns is published by Random House. ISBN978-0-399-590-86-3.

A new book by Rachel L Swarns, The 272: The families who were enslaved and sold to build the American Catholic church is a searing indictment of the Society of Jesus, the Catholic order better known as the Jesuits, which, between the mid-1730s and 1837 traded in human flesh in the slave markets of Maryland.

The book is also a bravura example of how a sensitive historian can use oral histories – in this case two black families, one of which escaped slavery and another which suffered, but survived it – to fill in gaps in the documentary records that with depressing regularity tot up the worth of the slaves the Jesuits owned and sold.

Profiting from sweat, toil and blood

Most importantly for readers of University World News, The 272 shows how some of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities – Georgetown in Washington, DC, Boston College, Fordham University in New York, Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and the university named for the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola in Baltimore, Maryland – owe their existence to the money the Jesuits raised in the early 1800s from the sweat, toil and blood, “drawn”, as President Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address in April 1965, “with the lash”.

By the time the Jesuits in Maryland, the English colony established by Lord Baltimore as a home for Catholics, started accumulating slaves in the early 1730s, Catholic teachings dating back to St Paul had ‘legitimised’ slavery.

In “Ephesians”, Paul admonished slaves to “be obedient to your masters”. Four hundred years later, as Swarns notes, St Augustine wrote that Christ “did not make men free from being slaves”.

A millennium after Augustine, Pope Nicholas V gave the Portuguese leave to “reduce” Muslims and pagans in Africa and the Americas “to perpetual slavery” in the Doctrine of Discovery, that was later extended to the Spanish. (Pope Francis repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery a few months ago.)

The Jesuits in Maryland accumulated their first slaves because bequests of plantations, which included appurtenances such as ploughs and horses, also included slaves; in Maryland law, and, indeed, across the southern colonies, slaves were no different from other chattel.

By the mid-1750s, the Jesuits were enthusiastic buyers of slaves and soon were among the colony’s largest holders of slaves. On eight plantations totalling 12,677 acres, they owned 192 slaves whose forced labour produced £696 (US$893) income.

While thankful for the income, the Jesuits distinguished themselves from many of their contemporaries by believing that slaves had ‘souls’ that could be saved. Thus, they ministered to their captives. Though, as Swarns shows, again and again Jesuits pushed the envelope. Some considered them little more than ‘demons’.

Brother Joseph Mobberly wrote in his diary: “Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race” and “idleness, treachery, nastiness, and intemperance are said to have extinguished natural law.”

The Jesuits’ modus operandi when dealing with disciplining their slaves owed more to Simon Legree, the sadistic slave holder who kicks the saintly Uncle Tom to death in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, than it did to Christian charity. As punishment for their parents’ marital infidelity, one priest sought to right the moral ledger by selling their children away from the plantation.

‘Pregnant women whipped’

In 1820, Father Peter Kenney, who had been sent by the head of the Jesuits, Father General Jan Roothaan to investigate concerns that letters to Rome had raised about Mobberly, reported that “on some plantations pregnant women were whipped and some women were whipped inside the priests’ homes. On fecund land that grew good crops, he found slaves that had “only one pound and a quarter of [rancid] meat”.

After a lifetime of service to the order, Father William McSherry the Jesuit president of St Louis University consigned the elderly Thomas Brown and his wife to “live in the loft of one of the outhouses where there is no fireplace. Nor any way to warm us in the winter – and your Reverence knows it is cold enough here. I have not a doubt but cold will kill both me and my wife here”.

To try to save their lives, Brown, who had been allowed to work for money, perhaps off the plantation, offered to buy their freedom for US$150.

Swarns writes, “No records exist that Thomas Brown ever received any response or assistance from McSherry”. McSherry, she summarises, may not have bothered answering because he was busy “finding a way to dispose of the enslaved people in his care in their entirety”, via a mass sale, if possible.

Selling slaves was nothing new to the Jesuits. In July 1790, Nell and her son Perry, who lived on the Bohemia plantation, were sold for US$4, and the Jesuits received £22 as a partial payment for Esther.

Sarah and Jerry brought another £50 and two years later the Jesuits recorded £112 for four more slaves.

Slave sales fund a dormitory

By 1792, a total of two dozen enslaved persons were sold by what became the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen, who designated that the profits from the plantations be allocated to cover the cost of building a dormitory at Georgetown University, which had been founded three years earlier.

On paper, the Jesuit Order had strict rules about selling enslaved persons. Families were not supposed to be broken up. When possible, slaves were to be sold to Catholic plantation owners, in the belief, which often proved to be quixotic, that on their plantations the slaves could be ministered to by priests. But, writes Swarns, “financial necessity trumped both religious convention and the lives of the families who supported the [Jesuit] seminary”.

An incident which shows how Catholic slave owners that the Jesuits held in high esteem were moved by their own self-interest was that of Ann Mahoney Jones. She had been released from slavery by the previous owner of Woodyard some 15 miles from Washington DC but had continued to live and work beside slaves who knew they would never be free. The plantation’s new owner, a Catholic named Colonel Henry Darnel, burned her papers, consigning her and generations of her family to slavery.

Swarns has a cinematic mind. She begins her book’s central chapter, entitled simply, “The Sale”, with John Quincy Adams, America’s 5th president, who, after being defeated by Andrew Jackson in 1824, was elected to the House of Representatives; the only ex-president to achieve elective office. The date is 9 January 1837 and Adams stands in the well of the House decrying slavery. On this date, he’s presenting a petition signed by 228 women from Massachusetts demanding that the slave trade be ended in Washington DC, the only part of the country that the American government had (and to this day has) full legal control over. The petition was accepted.

A month later, Henry Johnson, a slave holder who had bought a number of the Jesuits’ slaves, stood in the well of the House with a very different message. Johnson challenged Adams’ claim that the God of Nature (so-named in the Declaration of Independence) created every man and woman with “the right to implore for mercy”.

God, Johnson said, did not give enslaved men and women the same rights as whites. Then, ominously, he added, that were the House of Representatives to recognise the rights of slaves to petition, “the Union was virtually dissolved; and when that day came, he should feel it his duty to leave the House and go home to his constituents” in Louisiana, where he had once been governor. Johnson’s financial problems had led him to, in violation of his promise to the Jesuits, sell off slaves for cold, hard cash.

Slaves sold to clear Georgetown debt

One or two pages later, we learn that Georgetown University was not at that time carrying a US$25,000 debt but, rather, a debt of US$47,654.54. The exactitude of the debt, which Swarns found in the records, speaks well of the Jesuits’ bookkeeping. The size of the debt led Jesuits who rather hated each other to make common cause and conclude that the survival of Georgetown rested on, as Swarns put it, “selling the people they had enslaved”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the Jesuits’ famed ability as logicians, it didn’t take long for the argument that selling them was, in fact, a moral duty, not just to save Georgetown but to demonstrate the depths of moral degradation of slaves qua slaves; and, fittingly, given the Jesuits’ famous ability as rhetoricians, the argument was made by Father Peter Havermans, who actually opposed the sale.

As Swarns summarises, “that the enslaved people’s resistance to abide by the priests’ rules had, in part, led to the decision to sell”. She then quotes this man of the cloth: “God likely allowed for the punishment for the Black men themselves, for many of them were bad.”

Once the decision was made, things moved quickly, indeed, Swarns suggests, they had to. Back at the Vatican, lawyers in the Roman Curia were working on a document that was released in December 1839 that forbade Catholics – both the laity and the priests – “to defend that very trade in Negroes as lawful under any pretext or studied excuse”.

Swarns has no proof, but she has good reason to suspect that the Jesuits in Maryland were aware that soon the supreme ecclesiastical power would “admonish and abjure” Catholics from owning slaves or taking part in the slave trade.

The final tally of the sale was 272 lives for US$115,000 or US$422 per person. It took three full pages to list the names of the slaves. Payment was US$25,000 up front and the rest at 6% interest to be paid over ten years. The size of the sale shocked the Jesuits head office, who took no action to try to undo it.

Rather, following the instructions from Rome, the Jesuits invested the money. By 1865, when slavery was ended and the Mahoney family gained its freedom, the Jesuits had earned the equivalent of US$4.5 million.

Expansion of Georgetown funded

Their investments in Maryland treasury notes stabilised the state’s finances and provided the money, first to pay off Georgetown’s debt and then to finance the university’s expansion.

Over the decades, the interest paid on the money earned from the sale of human beings, was used to help build colleges and universities across the eastern United States and educate the cadre that staffed other Catholic institutions.

The book ends by returning to the story of the descendants of the slaves once owned by the Jesuits who gather for a family reunion. But, as emotional as it is to read this, Swarns’ main interest in the last chapter is to detail the step Georgetown is taking now. Contrary to what it had claimed for decades, there are some 600 descendants of the slaves owned by the university’s founders.

The descendants welcomed Georgetown’s apology, but they felt that the plan to set aside seats in admissions for descendants was not enough because it benefited only those who enrolled in Georgetown.

Some descendants called for a US$1 billion dollars to be used to create a foundation that would promote racial reconciliation and address the needs of the community. Other plans were hashed out. The Jesuits pledged to raise US$100 million that would be given to a new foundation.

“Roughly half of the foundation’s annual budget would be distributed as grants to organisations engaging in racial reconciliation projects ... About a quarter of the budget would support educational opportunities for descendants in the form of scholarships and grants. A smaller proportion would address the emergency needs of descendants who are old and infirm,” summarises Swarms.

After finishing the book, the words that continued to ring for me were written by Roothaan, who had had to deal with a number of letters arguing for and against selling the slaves before he decided that they could be sold.

Writing to Father Mulledy, who arranged for the sale so as to save Georgetown, the most important and powerful Jesuit in the world said, “I rejoice that the matter of the negroes is concluded, and the lands have been leased to good men [ie White farmers].”