The facts of the sale are well known: In 1838, Thomas F. Mulledy and William McSherry, then the president of Georgetown, sold 272 Jesuit-owned slaves south. The sale was vicious and controversial. Mulledy, fearful that some slaves would escape if word of the sale got out, arrived unannounced on the Jesuit plantations and brought sheriffs in case he faced resistance. Families were split. Slaves lived out their lives in captivity in the Deep South. And, as a consequence of the transaction, Mulledy was shipped off to Europe, where he spent the next several years in ignominy.
But that story does not make it clear why we have Mulledy Hall. How, after this tragic and disgraceful affair with a marred, stained and toxified Mulledy, did Georgetown come to name a building (one as large and central as Mulledy’s boxy red namesake, no less) after him? Administrators did it because Mulledy, who was visionary, tireless and deeply flawed, wrenched Georgetown forward. Thomas Mulledy bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for what Georgetown has become. Crucial to Mulledy’s charge forward, however, was the liquidation and disposal of the Society’s slaves. The sale was a key part of the process that made Georgetown become what it is.
Mulledy — a quick-witted and quick-tempered son of Irish immigrants — became president of Georgetown College in 1829. He was young then, only 35, and part of a wave of young Jesuits assuming positions within the American order. These Jesuits, Emmet Curran’s Irish troika of Mulledy, McSherry and Ryder (after each of whom a campus building is named), wanted to break away from the old model of Jesuit education. In that model, rural plantations furnished funds and sites of contemplative living to support educational projects.
Mulledy and his compatriots, however, recognized that cities, now teeming with Catholic immigrants, were becoming the front lines for Jesuits. By continuing to focus manpower and efforts on plantations instead of urban schools, they feared the Jesuits would give up crucial ground.
Mulledy rapidly integrated Georgetown University into the city and updated its facilities. He improved the library, added a museum and tripled the number of boarders at the university — from 20 to 60 — and then nearly doubled it to over 100. At an enormous expense, the university constructed Mulledy Hall. Its elaborate details, in contrast to the restraint of the buildings that came before it, sent the message that Georgetown had arrived. The message was received, and prominent Washingtonians enrolled their sons in Mulledy’s Georgetown. Martin Van Buren’s son attended, as did the children of the D.C. mayor and the widowed empress of Mexico.
But the Mulledy generation faced a problem. It wanted to build a world-class university and that required cash. But a prohibition on Jesuit institutions being able to tuition prevented it from obtaining resources the way it is done now. Rome expected that Mulledy and his fellows would raise the cash by soliciting donations or by rerouting the profits from plantations. But donations were not forthcoming, and the plantations did not produce profits.
In 1833, William McSherry wrote a report on the 1,100 acres the Jesuits and their slaves farmed at St. Thomas Manor, “The proceeds of these 1,100 or 1,200 acres,” McSherry complained, “was nothing.” On the other hand, he estimated that selling the 45 slaves could generate $16,000 for the general fund, which went in part to supporting Georgetown.
In 1838, the stars aligned for a sale. Mulledy’s ambitious vision had placed his immediate successor, William McSherry, at the helm of a university saddled with debt. Mulledy had become an administrator within the Maryland Province. The longevity of slavery in Maryland seemed in doubt and the price of slaves was higher than ever.
So that year, Mulledy got permission from Rome and agreed to sell the slaves for more than $100,000, with $17,000 of the profits used to pay building debts at Georgetown.
It is tempting to view Mulledy and the sale as a blip in Georgetown’s history, but in fact, it fits very cleanly. The sale helped transform Georgetown and the province from a backwater area focused on plantations to a primarily educational, urban and increasingly well-reputed enterprise. It infused the system with long-awaited cash. It also defused a large portion of the debt that had ticked away like a time bomb for Thomas Mulledy, who was, in fact, one of Georgetown’s most important architects. The sale helped accomplish almost all of Mulledy’s goals for Georgetown in the 1830s and solidified our university’s ascendancy. He wrenched Georgetown forward. And so we named a building for him. With Mulledy, the good and the bad are inseparable and crucial to one another.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.
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