Georgetown, Jesuits, Slaveholding

CHATTER-square2The Hoya has run a series of pieces about the relationship of the university in its early years to slavery. The two columns by Matthew Quallen and another by Suzanne Monyak are thoughtful examples of a kind of historical reflection that has lately been undertaken at other universities with slaveholding in their past, such as Brown, Princeton and Virginia.

These undertakings are important for many reasons, especially for bringing the shameful history of American slavery home to institutions that continue to be an integral part of our social fabric, and whose embrace of slaveholding then is so contrary to values seemingly inherent to them today.

The slaves in Georgetown’s history were owned by the east coast Jesuits until 1838. Thus, Quallen and Monyak rightly put their reflections within the framework of Georgetown’s Jesuit values. For modern Jesuits, it is impossible to be unmoved by the history they recount. Disappointment at this history is shared by every Jesuit I know and the Maryland Province of Jesuits has long committed itself to keeping the history of this injustice in the light of day.

One of my tasks as a Jesuit historian has been to help Jesuits-in-training (novices) learn this local history and encourage them toward a sense of connection to it. Every summer, I offer seminars on the order’s history in North America to the novices; and we cover the Jesuit history that embarrasses and enrages every bit as precisely as the history that instead inspires.

Do I tell the novices the history of Jesuit slaveholding simply to pop their idealistic bubbles and teach them that Jesuits are no better than anyone else? That lesson alone might not be so bad. Fortunately, these seminars give us time to reflect on the “so what?” question.

My thoughts may be helpful, mutatis mutandis, to the university community as well. First, I offer the novices the moral that knowing the historical truth is essential to the goal of historical reconciliation. In point of fact, we know as much as we do about Jesuit slaveholding largely because Jesuits in the last half-century have worked hard to bring this history to light.

Monyak cited Fr. Thomas Murphy’s dissertation on Jesuit slaveholding. Other Jesuit historians, some with long relationships to our university, have done the same: Edward Beckett, Emmett Curran and Gerald Fogarty, among them.

Second, I offer the case of Jesuit slaveholding as a lesson in enculturation’s shadow side. Enculturation, or the process of learning and even taking on the values of the surrounding society, has long played a part in the Jesuit worldview and strategy of pastoral engagement. The Jesuits’ adoption of slaveholding to make their farms revenue-generating for their other, ministerial commitments is an example of enculturation gone awry. Sometimes Jesuits, indeed all-thoughtful people, are called instead to challenge the culture in which they find themselves. The slavery history was an opportunity lost.

Third, while this chapter of local Jesuit history must always hold a privileged place, it is not the only chapter. The relationship of Jesuits to the twentieth-century civil rights movement is complex. Still, three names warrant mentioning: John LaFarge, Horace McKenna and Richard McSorley. These Jesuit priests prophetically called on American Catholics, American Jesuits and Georgetown itself to stand for civil rights and social justice. All cut their teeth on “the race question,” sometimes at great personal risk from their racist neighbors and co-religionists. Their example undercuts any excuse for inaction based on supposed historical inertia.

Quallen rightly pointed out the naming of a couple older campus buildings as an unfortunate memorializing of those who put Georgetown on the ugly side of our nation’s slavery history. He proposed renaming them. That is a good idea.

It should also not go un-noted that in the last half century, the Jesuits and the university, moved by a remembrance of the past, have committed themselves in many substantive ways to being part of the solution to America’s racial problems. Scholarships and recruitment strategies were initiated to help make attendance at Jesuit schools more feasible for African Americans.

Closer to home, Georgetown’s reorientation is helped by every student who participates in local community service, from tutoring in Anacostia to ladling soup in S.O.M.E. The possibilities for effecting reconciliation and equality, the need for which is on going, are infinite for the willing.

Events across our nation last semester have reminded us that “the race question” still shapes our society in repugnant ways. Once upon a time, the Jesuits in early America found themselves facing the evil of slavery and failed in their corporate response. Now again Jesuit schools, including its faculty, staff and students, find themselves confronted with racism in America and are searching for a response.

We have Quallen and Monyak to thank for reminding us of a way we are linked to the roots of this contemporary problem, all the more sadly through Georgetown, an institution we cherish so much.

David J. Collins, S.J. is a professor of History at Georgetown University.

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