"We have also returned frequently to the question of reparations. While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of the enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the University."
Origins of the GU272
This story is 180 years in the making. It stretches from the plantations in Maryland to sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana. Maryland Jesuits sold 272 enslaved Africans to pay off debts and keep the nearly bankrupt Georgetown College from closing.
This truth is indisputable. Its horror is unforgettable. Its claim for justice is undeterred by time or powerful interests.
Go back to 1838…
Maryland Jesuits founded and financed Georgetown College with proceeds from their White Marsh plantations. But by 1838 the school was struggling with low enrollment, small fundraising, and overdue construction loans. To address this financial crisis the school’s president, Rev. Thomas Mulledy, proposed that the Maryland Jesuits sell some of their enslaved Africans. The Vatican initially balked at this controversial proposal because it directly contravened Rome’s orders not to sell slaves. Eventually, however, the Vatican relented and allowed the sale with certain conditions, including that families would remain intact. The Bill of Sale, dated June 19, 1838, listed the sale price as $ 115,000.
Fearful that some slaves would escape if word of the sale got out, Mulledly arrived unannounced on the Jesuit plantations with sheriffs in tow to deal with any resistance. Pandemonium erupted as slaves were rounded up for the journey to Louisiana. Children cried and the elderly prayed as families begged to remain together.
One Dutch Jesuit described and presciently observed how Mulledly conducted the sale:
“No one does this sort of thing except evil persons…who care about nothing but money…I tell you this will be a tragic and disrespectful affair.”
From the down payment for the 1838 sale, the Jesuits paid off the school’s bills, and the small college grew to become the prestigious Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. But what about the 272 and their descendants? The 272 labored on Louisiana cotton and sugar plantations under horrendous conditions, but the rest of this “tragic and disrespectful affair” is only now unfolding.
Because the Maryland Jesuits kept meticulous records of their human chattel, the 1838 sale was reportedly “one of the best-documented large sales of slaves in American history.” The ship manifest of the Katherine Jackson listed the name, age, sex, and height of each slave transported to New Orleans in the fall of 1838. It showed that the cargo included dozens of children, among them infants as young as 2 months old. Isaac, the first name listed on the ship manifest, was described as 65 years old at the time of the sale, and his eldest son Charles was 40 years old and his daughter Nelly was 38. It is unlikely that Isaac lived long enough to see slavery abolished 25 years later.
Records after the sale show the dates of marriages, baptisms and other important dates and even disclosed that children were forced to start working as slaves at the tender age of 5 years. Corneluis Hawkins was 13 years old at the time of the 1838 sale, and it was his abiding faith in Catholicism, developed on the Jesuit plantations in Maryland, that provided researchers with a roadmap to locating his descendants. Using multigenerational records, family histories and other genealogical source documents, researchers have been able to establish well past the threshold of authenticity and to the highest level of certainty, who are the legitimate and indisputable descendants and heirs of those 272 enslaved people.
The GU272 Isaac Hawkins Legacy group is comprised of at least 200 living descendants directly traceable to Isaac Hawkins and Cornelius Hawkins, and also to the Scott, Diggs and Hill families, all enslaved people in the 1838 sale. These descendants are men, women, children and ailing senior citizens who represent a microcosm of the African-American community. They range from a retired corporate executive to a restaurant worker earning $2.38 an hour. They are scattered all over the country, from Maryland to California. They range in age from 2 to 76 years old. All of them have been scarred in some way by the enduring legacy of slavery, including poor health and high mortality rates; living below the poverty line; and male family members caught up in a racially biased criminal justice system. Several descendants suffer from acute and degenerative diseases, while others work two and three jobs just to make ends meet.
Reconciliation and Atonement: The Jesuits and Georgetown Confront a Sinful Past
Perhaps one of the darkest, most perplexing and morally indefensible facets of American slavery was the direct involvement of the Catholic Church and Georgetown University in slave-trading. So, the paramount question in 2018 – the 180th anniversary of the 1838 sale – is what is owed to the descendants of Isaac Hawkins and other descendants of the slaves who were sold so that Georgetown could survive?
In 2015 Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia commissioned the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to study and reflect on this issue and to provide recommendations on how to address Georgetown’s past. He appointed sixteen (16) members from the Georgetown and Jesuit communities to serve on the Group. Yet, he failed to include any of the living descendants, many of whom were already identified. Though disappointed to be marginalized at the outset, descendants’ hope for justice still remained strong, especially when the Working Group’s 2016 report included the following recommendation:
President DeGioia, himself, on other occasions in 2016 opined that a significant amount of money would be required to make amends. However, when he chose which recommendations to adopt, reparative justice was conspicuously absent – once again marginalizing the descendant community. When President DeGioia announced in September 2016 the steps that the school would take to “atone” for the suffering and exploitation of 272 slaves who were sold to secure Georgetown’s existence, they included: (1) an apology; (2) the renaming of buildings; (3) an institute to study slavery; and (4) preferential “consideration” in admissions for descendants of the GU272.
No compensatory fund.
Nothing that actually reflected how descendants wanted Georgetown to make amends with them.
Nothing to make them whole.
The descendants have expressed their sincere gratitude to Georgetown University and the Jesuits for acknowledging that the university participated and benefited from the institution of slavery, especially the infamous 1838 sale. They also appreciate Georgetown alumnus Richard Cellini’s effort to locate the descendants, and they were especially touched by the Mass of Reconciliation and the ceremony to rename Isaac Hawkins Hall on April 18, 2017. It was in that spirit that they participated in the April 18th forum that began the discussion of the reparative justice they are seeking from Georgetown and the Jesuits.
Yet, it seems that GU is more focused on addressing racial injustices in our nation and its manifestations in the Washington, D.C. community than achieving meaningful reconciliation with the descendants of those who secured its early survival.
While descendants of Isaac Hawkins wholeheartedly embrace the notion of helping the broader African-American community, they believe Georgetown has an urgent moral duty to first honor the debt owed to descendants who bear the crushing legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racial terrorism in America. To do otherwise would perpetuate the destructive moral crime of slavery while seeking to erase this inconvenient truth: Georgetown University owes its existence to this history. These families believe reparative justice must start with them to address the unjust enrichment of Georgetown on the backs of their enslaved ancestors.
A Path to Reparative Justice for the Descendants of the GU272
In 1838, Georgetown College was a fledging backwater school with one building situated on 1.5 acres of land. Today, it’s not only our country’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, it’s an elite and prestigious international research university. It owns 54 buildings and spans 104 acres with plans for massive expansion into the heart of the city. It’s no longer near insolvency, but a thriving metropolitan center with 17,000 students and undergraduate and graduate schools in a broad range of disciplines.
The corpus of its permanent capital exceeds $1 billion, and it receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year from grants, gifts, perpetual trusts, Middle Eastern royalty and other revenue sources. Georgetown also owns priceless collections of works of art, rare artifacts, art objects for scientific research, educational and curatorial purposes and other historic treasures. Georgetown is the beneficiary of several lucrative estates and is in financial partnerships capable of leveraging its resources. Consequently, Georgetown can well afford reparative justice for the descendants of those who worked and died to save the university. This is a small price to pay for Georgetown’s remarkable ascendency to world class status.
Indeed, this is a much-needed and long-overdue lifeline to help descendant families cope with social disabilities and build wealth for future generations. Every day, America is becoming more economically polarized. We live in a dual America where the wealth gap between black and white Americans is a glaring manifestation of the legacy of slavery. It is quite sobering to hear Georgetown University President DeGoia reference the stunning fact that African American families, such as these descendants, are 228 years away from accumulating the same amount of wealth as white families in America.
Without wealth there is no right to self-determination. Past efforts of social integration, civil rights, respect and hope are inspirational, but they don’t accumulate as assets that can be inherited or economically enhanced. Neither are the benefits of social safety net programs transferable from generation to the next. The only measurable indicator of progress from one generation to the next is wealth. The Jesuits and Georgetown leaders know this well, because it is the accumulated wealth from their ancestors that has put them in positions of economic security and power. Why should they deny same to the heirs of those whom their ancestors enslaved, which include 200 descendants of Isaac Hawkins?
Payments have been made to Japanese, Native Americans and Jewish citizens, all of whom contributed to our country. However, no group in Georgetown University’s history has sacrificed or produced more over a longer period of time than the GU272, and Georgetown University is clearly a major beneficiary of that sacrifice. No fund could be commensurate with the nature of the sinful tragedy of the enslavement and sale of the GU272. But there must be a meaningful fund designed just for descendants. They must be made whole without delay! Some are in the twilight of their lives, hoping to pass something along, so their children and grandchildren might have a fair shot at chasing their dreams.
Most of these descendants are still practicing Catholics, deeply committed to the principles of forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as the continuation of Georgetown as a premier university in the United States and around the world. They see their future as intimately intertwined with the future of the Georgetown community, because the history and contributions of their ancestors will be a part of Georgetown University’s future into perpetuity.
180 years is a long, long journey to justice. Let this story of sacrifice, courage and resilience reach victory in 2018 for the descendants of the GU272, Georgetown University, and the Maryland Jesuits.
In 1838, the sale of 272 American slaves was a significant economic event, especially since the sellers were Maryland Jesuits and Georgetown College. It was also a deal that came with conditions attached by the Catholic Church in Rome. The Vatican set out four conditions for the sale:
Families would remain intact
They would be allowed to continue practicing their Catholic faith
The proceeds of the sale would not be used to pay the school’s debts
Slaves must be sold to planters
Father Thomas Mulledly, the president of Georgetown and the architect of the sale, promised his superiors the conditions would be met. In a manner oddly reminiscent of a certain contemporary political leader in Washington, Father Mulledly reneged on his promises.
Hundreds of enslaved people were shipped off to Louisiana cotton plantations that were notoriously brutal. Even though it violated the conditions of sale, Father Mulledly used the proceeds to pay the school’s debts; the enslaved families were torn apart and they were not allowed to practice their faith. These revelations met with such distain from Rome that Father Mulledly was stripped of his presidency and sent back to Rome. He did, however, return to Georgetown a few years later to serve another term as its president.
The school’s betrayal of black slaves is profound. Imagine the devastation of husbands being separated from wives; parents from children; infants from mothers; ailing elders from the care of their families. The toll has caused irreparable harm to successive generations by destabilizing African American families and robbing black communities of a strong nucleus to repel the dark forces that suffocate hope and stifle unity.
The double victimization of the GU272 – first being sold and then betrayed by the broken promises of Georgetown leaders – merits more than an apology and symbolism.