In a historic step forward to reconcile with Georgetown’s slaveholding history, University President John J. DeGioia met with Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, a descendant of one of the 272 slaves sold in 1838 by former University President Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., on Monday, June 13.
This marked the first reported meeting between the president of a university and a descendant of one of the slaves who worked at or was sold by the university. Over a dozen universities have acknowledged being involved in slavery or the slave trade, according to The New York Times.
The meeting, which took place in in Spokane, Wash., comes as DeGioia announced plans to reveal a series of actions to address the university’s history with slavery later this summer. DeGioia also plans to meet with other descendants of the 272 slaves in Louisiana this week.
The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation submitted a report to DeGioia on how best to address Georgetown’s history with slavery in June. The group consists of faculty, students and community members charged by DeGioia in August to help address Georgetown’s history with slavery.
Following a student-organized demonstration and the working group’s recommendation, Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall – named after Mulledy and former University President Rev. William McSherry – were renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall in November. Further events memorializing the slaves took place throughout the academic year, including an Emancipation Day symposium. The symposium featured a series of speakers to commemorate the DC Compensation Act of 1862, which ended slavery in Washington, D.C.
According to Fr. David Collins, S.J., the co-chair of the Working Group and an associate professor in the history department, the Working Group has encouraged the university to reach out to descendants of the slaves.
Citing Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Craig Stephen Wilder, who spoke at the Emancipation Day symposium, Collins said Georgetown is taking a unique moral approach to its history with slavery – something the Working Group encouraged in its report.
“[Wilder] says plenty of elite universities have this problem, but Georgetown is the first place that is looking at it as a moral and human problem and not just a PR problem. And then he uses this example of DeGioia’s visit to Ms. Bayonne-Johnson,” Collins said. “There, I would say that he is moving in a direction that captures the spirit that the working group wanted to articulate in the report.”
DeGioia and Bayonne-Johnson met privately for 15 minutes to discuss her ancestors, according to Bayonne Johnson, following a 45 minute meeting between DeGioia, Bayonne-Johnson and her team of amateur genealogists researching the descendants of the Georgetown slaves.
Bayonne-Johnson and her team – including Carol Anderson, Pat Ayers, Barbara Brazington, Mary Holcomb, Dolly Webb, Janette Birch and Juanita McBride – work with Richard J. Cellini’s (COL ’84, LAW ’88) non-profit the Georgetown Memory Project, which seeks to research and support descendants of the 272 slaves.
Bayonne-Johnson is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Nace and Biby Butler, who were sold by Georgetown to a Louisiana plantation in 1838. The profits from the sale were used in part to help keep the university afloat.
Bayonne-Johnson said she and her team want access to Georgetown’s archives, which contains records before the sale. She will visit Georgetown in February in order to tour campus and access the university archives.
“Everything we have begins with that sale of the slaves to the plantation owners in Louisiana, so we want to know,” Bayonne-Johnson said. “Genealogists want to know where these people came from, who gave them to the Jesuits to work the plantations and we’re just trying to forge a partnership with the university so we can locate these records and find these people.”
In addition to Georgetown, the Maryland Province Jesuits, the Maryland State archives, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and other Jesuit universities may have archives detailing the history of the slaves before their sale. But Georgetown’s records are critical to the group’s research, according to Bayonne-Johnson.
“We think that Georgetown could be a centerpoint in providing us with that information so we can locate the descendants and discover the families’ history,” Bayonne-Johnson said.
In a Facebook post on his page, DeGioia said the university will work with Bayonne-Johnson and her team to support their research.
“It was moving and inspiring to experience their work in exploring the story of Ms. Bayonne-Johnson’s great-great-great grandparents, Nace and Biby Butler, who were sold as part of the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people owned by the Society of Jesus in Maryland,” DeGioia wrote. “I very much look forward to working with them and engaging the resources of our university in support of this work.”
DeGioia was keen to offer his support, according to Bayonne-Johnson.
“I think the first thing he asked was how could he help – of what service could he be,” Bayonne-Johnson said.
Bayonne-Johnson said DeGioia not only wanted to find ways to help the group, but also to listen to the group.
“We were very impressed with his willingness to acknowledge the difficult history, Georgetown’s difficult history,” Bayonne-Johnson said. “We were really impressed with that. He was very open, very receptive, asked a lot of questions.”
In order to move the dialogue on Georgetown’s slaveholding history forward, Bayonne-Johnson said it is important for her and others to work with the university community.
“We don’t get anywhere if the conversation stays within our group. We need to talk to somebody who can be of service to us in that manner. It’s very big that he was willing to listen, and he listened,” Bayonne-Johnson said. “For the first time I really felt like I was part of the Georgetown family.”
Correction: This article previously stated the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation submitted its report to DeGioia in April; it submitted its report to DeGioia in June. The article also previously stated the working group was setup in November, following protests over the naming of Mulledy and McSherry Hall; the working group was setup in August.
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