Radio Show

Rachel Swarns on the History of Slavery and the American Catholic Church

Father Dave welcomes New York University Professor and contributing writer for the New York Times, Rachel Swarns, to discuss her book, “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church.

This topic may be distressing, but Father Dave underscores its importance. “I’m guessing that it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, not just Catholics,” he says. “I think what we’re seeing in society is that we’re resistant on many levels to go back and really address and be honest about the founding of our country, and particularly with respect to slavery. And the same is true with the Catholic Church.”

As a Black woman and practicing Catholic, Rachel describes her feelings when she first wrote about this story in 2016 for the New York Times. “I was astounded when I stumbled across this history; I just had no idea,” she says. “[African Americans] had been owned and enslaved by the nation’s most prominent Catholic priests, Jesuit priests, who happened to be among the largest slaveholders in Maryland. When times got tough in 1838, those priests did what a lot of people did, which was to sell off their assets. In this instance, the assets were 272 men, women, and children to save their biggest mission project, which was the college we now know as Georgetown University.”

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Rachel notes that participating in slavery was a standard practice throughout early American history, and the involvement of the Jesuits was no exception. “The economy was a slave economy, and the priests who built the underpinnings of the [American] Catholic Church relied on slavery and slave sales. The priests who did that were the priests who built not only Georgetown, but the first Archdiocese.” she says. “[This part of Church history] is really deep, but it’s just not a story that we know.” Rachel published her personal viewpoint on this history in an opinion essay for the New York Times.

“The 272” follows the next generations of one family involved in the sale, and how, despite the troublesome history, many have continued to practice their Catholic faith to this day. “I think it’s important for people to know that, even though this is a story of heartbreak, it’s also a story of struggle, resistance, family and faith,” Rachel says. “A lot of these families – even after the Civil War, even though their families had been torn apart by these priests and the sale – they remained in the Church…Some became lay leaders, some became religious leaders, and they worked to make the Church reflective and responsive to Black Catholics.” 

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She also describes how Georgetown and Society of Jesus have made strides to address the past. “The worldwide leader of the Jesuits wrote a letter apologizing that ‘we’ve greatly sinned’ and that they would work to try to address this history,” Rachel says, and these words were also delivered in person in a public apology. She also explains that families of the descendants will share the legacy status of other Georgetown alumni, providing an advantage for admissions. “The Jesuits partnered with a group of descendants and promised to raise $100 million toward racial reconciliation projects and projects that will benefit descendants. It marks the largest effort by the Roman Catholic Church to address this history,” Rachel says.

“Fundraising has been going slower than they had hoped, [but] we have to be honest and say that this is not an easy subject for people,” she continues. “It’s not been easy, but both institutions have really said, ‘We want to tackle this, we want to acknowledge it.”