How Bondage Built the Church
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Author: Tiya Miles
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The New York Review


The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church
by Rachel L. Swarns
Random House, 326 pp., $28.00

When the Florida State Board of Education approved new standards for the middle school curriculum last July, there was an uproar. The standards advised teachers to tell their students that enslaved people had acquired skills that “could be applied for their personal benefit,” suggesting an upside to dehumanization and forced servitude. Historians, media commentators, and politicians from Republican senator Tim Scott to Vice President Kamala Harris criticized the rhetorical acrobatics of this guidance. The new standards appeared to be in sync with the broader political agenda of some Republicans to narrow the teaching of African American history in public schools, avoiding subject matter that might make white students feel guilt or discomfort—and hence potentially excluding nearly any event, cause, or effect in Black history.

The question of how to teach slavery in relation to the country’s history has become an unfortunate proxy for polarized political views (consider the 1619 Project controversy,or the former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s reluctance to identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War while she was on the campaign trail). Because many Americans, especially Black Americans descended from enslaved people, recognize the harms of minimizing slavery—both to the memory of those who lived through it and to our ability to improve race relations today—those who attempt to whitewash it face opposition.

Rachel L. Swarns’s compassionate investigation, The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, joins the intellectual resistance to historical amnesia. Swarns is a writer for The New York Times and a professor of journalism at New York University who previously researched Michelle Obama’s enslaved ancestors for the book American Tapestry (2012). Her latest—on the history and legacy of slavery at Georgetown University and within the US Catholic Church—joins a swell of books, studies, reports, lectures, conferences, and commemorations examining the links between historical race-based bondage and institutions of higher learning.

These publications and events have revealed an intricate web of institutional indebtedness to slavery, laying bare the dependence of private and public colleges on human subjugation and capital accumulated from slave trades, slave births, slave-produced materials, unfree people used for financial leverage in mortgages, and the intimate boosts to enslavers from personal bodily services like fly fanning and chamber-pot emptying, derived from chattel bondage. Descriptions (and sometimes images) of enslaved people serving college presidents, tending campus grounds, feeding university students, and being sold across the country and the ocean by faculty and affiliates abound in this new material. In one particularly sensitive example at the University of Georgia in Athens, the remains of what were likely enslaved people were unceremoniously uncovered during a construction project in 2015.

It is generally agreed that this movement began with the work of Ruth J. Simmons. She is the former president of Brown University (the first Black person to lead an Ivy League school) and the author of a memoir, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey (2023), which describes her experience growing up in rural Texas in a sharecropping family. In 2003 Simmons authorized an investigation of Brown’s financial entanglement with slavery and the international slave trade. The resulting report, “Slavery and Justice,” was made public in 2006. A string of universities followed Brown’s lead, researching the history of slavery at their institutions, publicizing their findings, and often creating memorials to the enslaved or setting aside funds for further study, community programs, or scholarships for descendants.

The University of Virginia is prominent among these institutions, with its abstract, curvilinear memorial, completed in 2020, showcasing the engraved names of the enslaved laborers who helped to build and maintain the institution. In 2016 UVA founded the international Universities Studying Slavery consortium, which spans the Atlantic Ocean just as the trade once did. An initiative at Clemson University—situated on former plantation grounds in South Carolina—has expanded beyond antebellum slavery to investigate the campus labor of mostly Black southern prisoners in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century convict-lease programs, as well as the contributions of Black workers, artists, students, and activists through to the present.

This work is ongoing in both the South and the North. In April 2022 Harvard released a report on the widespread ownership and sale overseas of Black and Indigenous bondspeople by its donors, staff, and fellows—including the early Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop—and to redress this historical wrong established a $100 million endowment, the largest pledge by a university to date.Harvard later hired Richard Cellini—the Georgetown alumnus who founded the Georgetown Memory Project and pushed for that school to reckon with its past (and who makes an appearance in The 272)—to help identify descendants of enslaved people tied to Harvard. Yale has just released a book-length report on slavery at the university by the historian David Blight.3 And last December Dartmouth—building on a 2019 exhibition created by the Black feminist sociologist Deborah King and her students—released the Dartmouth and Slavery Project website, which documents that Eleazar Wheelock, Dartmouth’s founder, owned at least eighteen enslaved people.

In his pathbreaking overview, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013), the historian Craig Steven Wilder traced the many colonial and Early Republic–era schools where bondspeople were held on campus, where enslaved laborers maintained the grounds, where institutional programs depended on proceeds from slavery, and where the knowledge and technologies produced relied on enslaved people’s presence and contributions. To the extent that national progress in the arts and sciences can be attributed to university breakthroughs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the nation as a whole gained from universities’ exploitation of Black and Indigenous people.

The 272 begins where it should, with the descendants of the enslaved. The first words of the book are a living descendant’s name: Jeremy Alexander. A devout Catholic and an employee at Georgetown University, Alexander learned through DNA testing in 2016 that his ancestors had been owned by Jesuit priests in Maryland. They, along with hundreds of other women, men, and children, had been part of a mass sale in 1838, a move by Maryland Jesuits, with the approval of church leaders in Rome, to stabilize the university’s mismanaged finances.

Swarns first wrote an account of the Jesuit slave sale for The New York Times in 2016. Her article, “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?,” was widely read and received an electric reaction. In her book she expands on that reporting to explain that “for more than a century, the American Catholic Church relied on the buying, selling, and enslavement of Black people to lay its foundations, support its clergy, and drive its expansion.” Her argument is that “without the enslaved, the Catholic Church in the United States, as we know it today, would not exist.”

English Catholics came to Maryland in 1634, fleeing political persecution and seeking a place where they could practice their faith freely even as they evangelized to Native Americans and settlers. Their sponsor was Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, who, as proprietor of the colony, encouraged Catholic settlement and reserved more than 20,000 acres for the Jesuits. Like other Marylanders with land and privilege, Jesuits participated in plantation slavery from the early 1700s. Their embrace of the practice might partly be ascribed to religious discrimination that included a tax on the importation of indentured Irish Catholic servants. Jesuits acquired slaves through inheritance and purchase and compelled these captives to practice Catholicism.

After the Revolutionary War and ratification of a Constitution that promised religious freedom in the young United States, Catholic leaders set their sights on developing lasting institutions, especially a place of higher learning. In 1789 Father John Carroll, who would soon become the first Catholic bishop in the US, purchased land for the site of Georgetown College. By this time Jesuits in Maryland were heavily invested in plantation land and enslaved Black labor. When Catholic leaders in Rome decided against funding the new college, Swarns explains, Carroll knew that most of the financing “would have to come from the priests’ plantations and the labor of their enslaved workers.” There was also discussion about “the need to cull the stock of surplus—‘supernumerary’—human beings.”

Just over a year later, Swarns writes, enslaved people on at least one of these plantations, the Bohemia estate, “began to vanish”:

Nell and her son, Perry, were sold for $4 in July 1790. That same month, the priest who ran the plantation received about £22 in partial payment for the sale of an enslaved woman named Esther. Sarah and Jerry, described as “a Negro girl” and “a negro boy” in the plantation’s financial records, disappeared in January 1791, sold for £50. By March 1792, four more people were gone, handed over in exchange for a horse, blacksmith tools, and £112.

More than two dozen people from the estate were sold. As Swarns notes, these early sales were “a harbinger of what was to come.”

Right away Swarns makes clear that the story she has to tell is not just about Georgetown University or even the Catholic Church. She aims to create a “portrait of an enslaved family” as much as an institutional history. Swarns organizes her chronicle around the experiences of two sisters, Anna and Louisa Mahoney, who were owned by Jesuits and eventually separated by the 1838 sale.

It wasn’t easy to follow the trail of the sisters and their relatives. But in a moving passage that reverberates throughout the book, Swarns points out that even when individuals did not own themselves, they owned their story:

They could not read or write, but they could speak. The elders passed their story on to their children, who passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, and on down, keeping elements of the saga alive, in some branches of the family, well into the twenty-first century.

Swarns reminds us that the legacy of slavery is simultaneously the legacy of resistance, a precious gift that ancestors bestow on descendants and that scholars can sometimes hear in oral accounts or glimpse in the written archive.

The sisters were descended from Ann Joice, who left England for Maryland around 1676. Possibly biracial, or “mulatto,” in the sources Swarns uncovers, she was a free woman who had signed a contract of indenture to work for Charles Calvert, a prominent Marylander and son of Lord Baltimore. When Calvert returned to England in 1684, he reassigned Ann Joice, sending her to work for his cousin, Colonel Henry Darnall, a wealthy plantation owner and the deputy governor of Maryland.

At that time Maryland was tightening colonial slavery laws so that Black people could no longer claim freedom based on Christian baptism or conversion. Darnall burned her indenture papers, the only written evidence of her term-limited position. When Ann Joice protested, Darnall sent her to stay with a man who imprisoned her in a kitchen cellar for months. She emerged a slave for life. Outwardly she played the part, but inwardly she remembered that she had a right to her stolen freedom.

Swarns, who reconstructed these events largely from family oral history and court testimony, captures the poignancy of this origin story in which Ann Joice, a free Black immigrant, was turned into a slave—as well as Ann Joice’s determination to pass that story on:

She decided to tell her descendants and anyone else who would listen how the Catholic gentry of Maryland had stolen her freedom. Darnall had stripped her of everything. She would have no wealth, no land, and no savings to leave her family, but she still had her story…. That story would be her legacy.

Over time the ownership of Ann Joice’s descendants shifted between Catholic gentry and Jesuit priests. Ann Joice became the ancestor of individuals who would be owned by Catholic enslavers in Maryland, and by others in Louisiana, for generations.

Early in the book Swarns introduces us to Harry Mahoney, whom she describes loosely as “a Joice descendant” and places on a Jesuit plantation starting in the 1790s. He became a trusted foreman on St. Inigoes, a Jesuit plantation near the Potomac River in southern Maryland. He and his wife, Anna, had eight children, the youngest of whom were Anna and Louisa, born a year or two apart in the early 1810s.

Anna and Louisa grew up together within a close family, although they all lived under Jesuit control. The sisters played and worked beneath the Maryland sky, weaving ties of affection and interdependency that Swarns effectively recreates. Anna married, becoming Anna Mahoney Jones, and had children of her own. Swarns also describes the experiences of extended Mahoney family members (including two men who sued for their freedom in 1797, with mixed results—an inconclusive jury decision followed by an escape), and other people owned and sold by the Jesuits. This telling is not without gaps, as Swarns acknowledges:

There are questions about their lives that I cannot answer, personal experiences that I cannot depict. Sometimes, as I studied the spidery script of the Jesuits’ handwritten letters, the sisters and their ancestors seemed like ghosts passing through this world, leaving barely a trace.

The 272 moves quickly across the decades toward the mass 1838 sale. In 1835 Jesuit leaders in Maryland found themselves in dire economic straits. Georgetown College was in deep debt, as was the administrative organization of Jesuits in the region, known as the Maryland Province. The president of Georgetown, Thomas Mulledy, had contributed to the school’s financial troubles by embarking on an ambitious plan to erect more buildings. His proposal for returning the school and region to solvency was to sell the plantations and slaves owned by the church.

Mulledy argued that the plantations and the people held there were a burden for the church, antiquated assets that could be leveraged for financial renewal. William McSherry, the provincial superior, agreed that a mass sale would make economic sense. However, some priests felt it would be wrong to sell away Black people who were also Catholics and had long-standing ties to the church community. Even priests who managed these plantations and espoused racially prejudiced views objected to the callous treatment of Black workers. After a debate that lasted about six days, the Provincial Congress elected to liquidate some of their plantation holdings.

The process began with the immediate sale of four women from one plantation days after the meeting in July, followed by the sale of two families from another plantation in September. They were purchased by Henry Johnson of Louisiana, a Protestant who would allow them to practice Catholicism. In 1836 the Maryland Jesuits sought approval from the church in Rome for a mass sale. Church leaders consented to the plan with twenty stipulations, including that buyers must support Catholic religious practice, and that couples and, “as far as it is possible,” parents and children should be kept together.

Father Joseph Carbery, who oversaw St. Inigoes plantation and had taken a liberal approach to management there, supporting Black initiative and semi-autonomy, vehemently objected to this decision and traveled to Georgetown hoping to intervene. According to stories that were passed down in the family, when Harry Mahoney saw that the priest had no appetite when he returned, Mahoney pronounced, “We’re sold!”

Swarns excels at scene setting and historical portraiture. She dramatizes how the courageous Harry Mahoney saved the Jesuits’ money and led enslaved girls to safety during a British attack in the War of 1812, how the cantankerous college president Thomas Mulledy was intent on enlarging and embellishing Georgetown’s campus and selling people to raise the funds, and how the persistent Archbishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati urged the church to adopt the cause of abolition.

Mulledy became the provincial superior in 1837 (McSherry took charge of Georgetown College) and negotiated the sale the next year. A meeting in Washington produced an eight-page agreement stipulating that

272 men, women, and children—many of whom belonged to families that had been enslaved by the Jesuits for generations—were to be sold for the sum of $115,000, roughly $422 per person.

Then the “roundup” began.

The man hired to oversee it set out first for St. Inigoes, where slave catchers “arrived without warning and swept through the plantation rounding up frantic families, about forty-one people in all,” Swarns recounts. “The youngest were toddlers.” Robert, the oldest Mahoney brother, was taken. The hired men then moved on to the next Jesuit plantation. Sold down the river, the captives would be transported to a ship, the Uncas, and then to Louisiana.

Several months later, word of another sale reached St. Inigoes. Carbery urged members of the Mahoney family to run. Anna, who had small children, deemed it too risky to escape, and her family along with another sister, Bibiana, were among the many rounded up and sent to Louisiana. Louisa fled to the woods for several days with her mother but eventually returned; they, Harry, and several other Mahoney siblings were able to remain. Over the decades many of the descendants of those sold that day lost touch with their Maryland relatives and history but continued to practice their Catholic faith, eventually becoming pillars of a Black Catholic community in New Orleans.

Swarns exposes the church’s culpability—from individual priests on plantations to Vatican representatives—but she does not present a simplistic, one-sided account. There are craven priests and admirable priests in this telling. The range of voices and philosophical positions on the matter of slave owning and slave selling within the church, as well as on the question of how to modernize an institution heavily invested in old, morally compromised practices, is a fascinating element of the book.

The argument frequently offered in our day by some defenders of prominent slaveholders of the past—that these men and women were just doing what everyone around them did, participating in a cultural norm that was not obviously wrong—is belied by Swarns’s account. She shows how every argument for slavery and human sale presented by a Jesuit priest or church leader was countered by other members of the faith—including white clergymen as well as enslaved Black Catholics. Clergymen with the power to alter enslaved people’s lives for the worse did so while being aware of strong counterarguments for Black humanity.

Examples of the emotional vacuousness and moral corruption of some of these so-called men of God are strewn throughout the text. There are underfed and poorly clothed people owned by the Jesuit order. There is a Maryland priest who sells children away from their parents as punishment for the couple’s supposed infidelity. There are young seminarians who lounge about on plantation grounds like privileged sons of cotton planters, including the future Georgetown president Mulledy. And although instructions from Rome loosely prohibited dividing families in the mass sale of slaves, the Jesuits in Maryland separated spouses, parents, and children. Swarns does not delve deeply into the sexual abuse of Black women or children on these Jesuit plantations, but forced couplings and sexual assaults were not uncommon across the South.

The Civil War altered the lives of all these enslaved people—those retained in Maryland and those sold away to Louisiana. By 1864, at the urging of priests like Father Vincent M. Gatti, a Vatican official who compiled a report on American slavery based on the arguments of abolitionist priests like Archbishop Purcell, the Catholic Church adopted a new position that condemned the owning, selling, and buying of people, though it wasn’t publicized for years. That November the state of Maryland formally abolished slavery.

Louisa Mahoney Mason—she had married and had children after the 1838 sale—experienced freedom for the first time at the approximate age of fifty-one. Her sister, Anna Mahoney Jones, who had been sold to Louisiana, was freed after Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865. Anna and her daughter, also named Louisa, followed her son Arnold and his family to New Orleans, a magnet for newly freed people. Anna died at about age sixty-three, in 1874. Swarns writes, “She was gone, but her faith burned inside her grandchildren.”

Anna Mahoney Jones’s grandson, James Alphonse Johnson (child of Louisa), helped to establish a New Orleans community of Black Catholic churches, becoming a trustee of Holy Ghost Church. Her granddaughter, Helene Jones (child of Arnold), became a nun in the Sisters of the Holy Family, one of the earliest Black orders in the country, taking on the saintly name of Mary. As Mary Austin Jones, she later led the Sisters of the Holy Family and established orphanages and schools. Over the course of her career in service to her faith, Mary Austin Jones led the development of social services and educational institutions in New Orleans, Texas, Arkansas, and Belize, where she founded the first international mission by Black Catholics.

After the Civil War the religiously devout Mahoney sisters reconnected, “perhaps through letters passed through a network of priests,” Swarns speculates, writing again into the gaps of the archival record. The two siblings never reunited in person, but they were able to take solace in knowing that they and their families had weathered slavery’s brutal storm. Louisa Mahoney Mason died in 1909 around the age of ninety-six.

Swarns offers a clear demonstration of her main argument that slavery aided the development of the Catholic Church in Maryland and the broader US. The Jesuits of the Chesapeake Bay region anchored the growth of the church, exerting influence across the country. Money flowing from the ownership and sale of enslaved people in Maryland supported colleges and secondary schools in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Some priests trained by Maryland Jesuits traveled to cities in the Northeast and the West to serve new parishes and organizations, while other Jesuits landed in the Midwest and Deep South, where they directed colleges that also extracted enslaved people’s labor. Swarns estimates that in today’s dollars, Maryland Jesuits invested approximately $2.3 million in Catholic schools and seminaries around the country. Their crime stained a far-reaching and still-intact Catholic education movement.

The Catholic Church shared company with the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Episcopalian Church, the Moravian Church, and others in its acceptance of slavery. (Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians divided into Northern and Southern conferences as a result of the slavery debate.) Neither were Southern Catholics alone within their Church in exploiting racialized groups in colonial and early America. While the Jesuits in Maryland stand out for the scale of their operation and lasting cultural imprint on Georgetown and other colleges, Catholic priests and elites in Detroit, as I have shown in a history of that city—The Dawn of Detroit (2017)—owned Black as well as Indigenous people from the early 1700s through the early 1800s. My research also revealed a link between Detroit enslavers and the University of Michigan, which received significant early donations from members of former slaveholding families.

Craig Steven Wilder, whom Swarns quotes, points out the special significance of religious schools like Georgetown in the history of slavery’s entanglement with institutions of higher learning. This is not just an educational and economic story but a moral one, with strong implications for what Wilder calls “restorative justice.” In 2017 Georgetown issued an apology and expressed the intention “to restore the dignity of those from whom it was taken.” Together with the Jesuits, they have donated $27 million to the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation, and further plans for reparations are still in progress. Meanwhile members of the Mahoney family continue to hold dear their own history and legacy. In 2018 they and other descendants of people owned by the Jesuits organized a reunion in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, the location of Anna Mahoney Jones’s enslavement.

Swarns concludes The 272 in the same spirit of her opening—with a recitation of names. As Jeremy Alexander and his family reunite with relatives separated across generations as the result of that fateful sale, he finally learns the appellations of lost ancestors. “The people who labored there are no longer invisible, no longer forgotten,” Swarns writes, giving Alexander the last word: “‘We can call them by name,’ he said.”

Given this poignant framing, it is surprising and disconcerting that the title of the book is a number. Enslaved people have often been relegated to numerical groupings and cold accounts in archival records, plantation museum tours, and older histories that stripped them of their human qualities and stories. This is the opposite effect of what Swarns intends, and indeed achieves. Perhaps the title was meant to honor the hashtag created by Georgetown students to draw attention to the story (#GU272), or make clear its association with the popular article that preceded the book.

One among many important things that histories like Swarns’s The 272 can teach us is that slavery in these lands that we now call the United States knew few geographical, religious, or ethnic bounds. It turns out that our most cherished places—churches and schools in the North and the South—often have roots snarled in slavery. Our way forward is not to disavow this truth, but instead to face it.

For more on the 1619 Project, as well as the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, see Adam Hochschild, “History Bright and Dark,” The New York Review, May 25, 2023.

2 For more on the Harvard report, see Andrew Delbanco, “Endowed by Slavery,” The New York Review, June 23, 2022.

David W. Blight, Yale and Slavery: A History (Yale and Slavery History Project/Yale University Press, 2024).

Tiya Miles is the Michael Garvey Professor of History at Harvard and the author of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, which won the National Book Award. Her new book, Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People, will be published in June. (May 2024)

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