Established in 1789, Georgetown University is an institution 226 years in the making. From its more historic buildings like Healy Hall and Old North to its newer additions like the Rafik B. Hariri Building and Regents Hall, the campus flows with longstanding tradition mixed with modern change.
In its post-Revolutionary War years, the makeup of Georgetown’s community was far from diverse. Populated by Jesuits and an all-male, white, Christian student body, and supported by plantations run on African slave labor, Georgetown was indeed a product of its time.
Yet, as the university battled with perpetual debt and the changing tide of public opinion in the beginning of the 19th century, its own perspective gradually shifted. Slowly, the racial paradigm transformed and the long-held institution of slavery collapsed from the top down, fusing the fate of African culture and the Jesuit tenets held by the university in dynamic and completely unexpected ways.
In the mid-17th century, Spanish and French Jesuits travelled to several of the colonies on missions of religious conversion. Forced out of a Protestant England that denied it property rights and banned Catholic clerical study, the order did not receive a warmer welcome on American soil.
At the time, Maryland, although founded as a Catholic haven, was also primarily Protestant, and the Catholic population made up the small elite. To maintain peace between the two, in 1633, Cecil Calvert, the founder of the Maryland colony, asked its Catholic inhabitants to move their religious practices out of the public eye and onto private landholdings. These manors and plantations became havens of religious freedom and acceptance.
By the end of the 17th century, these plantation-owning Jesuits began employing African slave labor as white indentured servitude was legally phased out by the Assembly. In doing so, they were entering into a system of Maryland trade that had begun in 1642 with the arrival of the first group of African slaves in St. Mary’s City.
For the Jesuits, slaveholding was a means of affirming their right to property within the confines of a Protestant-dominated society. The Compromise of 1642 dictated that the Jesuits could own land as individuals but not as a recognized order, and after 1689, they had been barred from holding public office.
As modern African-American studies historian Thomas Murphy, S.J., puts it, slavery was an institution that signified “the assertion of their own right and the right of Catholic layman in the colony to be accorded the full rights of English subjects.”
Slave owning was also seen as a push for religious liberty — an extension of their Jesuit mission and an opportunity to spread Catholicism. By owning slaves, Jesuits believed they were protecting them from crueler Protestant slaveholders, who often denied their slaves the sacrament of baptism.
Jesuit slave owners raised their slaves Catholic and allowed them to be baptized, receive the Eucharist and marry. Jesuits believed that slaveholding brought them closer to God, using Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” as justification and inspiration for slaveholding practices.
Beneath these well-intentioned beliefs was a dogged adherence to the racial status quo. Maryland Jesuit Br. Joseph P. Mobberley S.J., addressed the issue of religion and slavery in an essay he wrote in 1818. He, like many other Jesuit slave owners at the time, saw the abolitionistmovement as a Protestant movement that threatened to destroy established religious and social culture.
“Can a man serve God faithfully & possess slaves? Yes. … Is it then lawful to keep men in servitude? Yes. I know there is at this time a prevailing opinion in the U. States, ‘that all men are free; that God never made one man to serve another; that it is against the divine law to possess slaves, and that it is much more criminal to sell them.’ This opinion is nothing less than a compound of Presbyterianism, Baptism [sic], Quakerism and Methodism,” he wrote.
Another Maryland Jesuit, Francis Dzierozynski, S.J., echoed Mobberley’s sentiment, calling the Jesuit plantations a “perpetual good” and the slaves “children whose well-being has been given to us by God.”
By the mid-19th century, the Jesuit plantations in Maryland were floundering financially. Although the Jesuits owned hundreds of slaves, land was costly to maintain and the Jesuits were more concerned with upholding their priestly duties than running plantations.
By 1815, it was clear the Jesuits had no feasible future in plantation work. That year, Mobberley wrote a letter to fellow Jesuit Giovanni Grassi, S.J., then president of Georgetown University, that showed how slavery was actually more costly than paid labor.
“It is better to sell for a time, or to get your people free — 1st Because we have their souls to answer for — 2nd Because Blacks are more difficult to govern now, than formerly — and 3rd Because we shall make more & more to our satisfaction. The two first propositions are evident. I therefore proceed to prove the third. The shortest way to prove this is to calculate our annual expenses in regard of our people,” Mobberley wrote.
One Jesuit priest, Peter Kenney, S.J., who was sent from Europe to inspect the Jesuit plantations in Maryland from 1819 to 1820, described the paradoxical disparity between the seemingly vast resources of the plantations and their actual prosperity as having “so much apparent wealth and real poverty.” He recommended parting altogether with this detrimental system.
The social institution of slavery within the District was also becoming increasingly unpopular. In 1833, the recently established American Anti-Slavery Society announced its “aim at purification of the churches from all participation in the guilt of slavery.”
The Jesuits were feeling increasing pressures — both financial and societal — to disband their plantations.
With the falling prosperity of Jesuit plantation owners came an unavoidable financial crisis for the university itself. During his first term as university president from 1829 to 1837, Thomas Mulledy, S.J., accumulated thousands of dollars of debt for the school.
In the early 1830s, Mulledy took out a $12,000 loan to build a self-titled campus building, and by the end of his presidency in 1838, his construction projects left his successor with $47,654.54 of debt.
As a solution to this economic downturn, on Nov. 29, 1838, Mulledy sold 272 slaves from Jesuit-run plantations in Maryland to two plantations in the Deep South. Matt Quallen, a columnist for The Hoya, explored the harsh ramifications of this sale for both the Jesuits making the deal and the slaves being sold (“Georgetown, Financed by Slave Trading” The Hoya, A3, Sept. 26, 2014).
Ranging from year-old babies to elderly workers well past their prime, the slaves were marched to the Port of Alexandria, Va., where they were then shipped to Louisiana. Although slave sales from Maryland to the Deep South were uncommon, Louisiana’s shared Catholic values and large plantations made the southern state an ideal recipient.
“Know all men by these presents, that I Thomas F. Mulledy of Georgetown, District of Columbia, have bargained & sold, & by these presents do bargain, sell & deliver unto Henry Johnson, of the Parish of St. James, State of Louisiana, the following negroes,” he wrote in the certificate of sale.
After nearly 200 years, the Society’s plantations had finally been disbanded; the 1838 slave sale marked the end of Jesuit-run plantations in Maryland.
As part of the exchange, Mulledy directed that slave families could not be separated, that the slaves continue to practice Catholicism and that all of the money made from the sale go toward Jesuit education. In spite of these stipulations, however, the Louisiana plantation owners proved negligent, often ignoring these standards.
Beforehand, some had already spoken out against this precarious deal. In a letter to Superior-General of the Society of Jesus Jan Roothaan, S.J., who approved the sale, a continental Jesuit named Peter Havermans, S.J., condemned the exchange as “a tragic and disgraceful affair.”
“No one does this sort of thing except evil persons, such as slave traders who care about nothing but money, or those who by necessity are so pressed by debts that they are forced into such a sale. … I tell you this will be a tragic and disgraceful affair,” he wrote.
The event sparked such outrage from fellow Jesuits that Mulledy was asked to resign from his position as provincial the following June, and he eventually fled to Rome. However, upon the request of fellow Jesuits in need of an experienced leader, he shortly returned to serve a second term as university president from 1845 to 1848.
During the 1830s and into subsequent decades, events were stirring that would change the course of Georgetown’s history for the next 150 years.
In 1834 in Macon, Ga., the famous Patrick Francis Healy was born. His father was Irish-American and his mother was a domestic mulatto slave, making Healy himself a slave by law.
Having inherited the Caucasian features and fair skin of his father’s side, Healy was often able to pass as white. However, the “one-drop rule” — the dominating principle that dictated that anyone with even “one drop” of African blood was considered black — prevented him from gaining social or economic prominence among the “pure” white Southern gentry.
In order to progress in the racist climate of 19th-century America, Healy separated himself from his family, joined the Jesuit order and eventually became part of the Georgetown faculty as prefect of studies, a position similar to an academic dean.
He and the Jesuits, who historical sources indicate were aware of Healy’s true racial identity, decided to keep his African ancestry a secret from the rest of the Georgetown community for fear of a racist backlash.
At the same time that Healy was slowly rising through the Georgetown ranks, the Compromise of 1850 abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C. By 1860, free blacks already outnumbered those enslaved.
Eventually, the D.C. Emancipation Act of 1862 emancipated all slaves in the District effective immediately. This was three years before the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery nationally, and D.C. soon earned the nickname as the “capital of the colored aristocracy.”
Yet, despite this progress in the District, racism still prevailed on Georgetown’s campus. The student body was primarily made up of white Southerners, and the town of Georgetown had a distinctively Southern feel. When classes recommenced after the end of the Civil War, a third of Georgetown’s student body hailed from old Confederate states. Some had even served as Confederate officers during the war.
When the university’s president, Fr. John Early, S. J., died suddenly on May 23, 1873, the board of directors appointed Healy, then aged 39, to take control of the university as its 29th president. Under his presidency, Georgetown pushed for modernization and evolved from a small college into a national university, prompting some to refer to him as the university’s second founder. Most notably, he oversaw the three-year construction of the famous Healy Hall that began in 1877.
It was not until the 1960s in the time of the civil rights movement that Healy’s true racial identity became commonly known, making him widely recognized as the first man of African ancestry to earn a Ph.D., first to become a Jesuit priest and first — and so far only — to serve as president of Georgetown University.
Today, Georgetown University’s social landscape makes it easy to forget that a bulk of its historic and architectural foundations were built by the hands of African slaves. Over 20 university-recognized groups currently exist to celebrate the ethnic diversity of the student body, five of which are closely tailored to those who identify as Africans or black.
Additionally, the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action and the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access are among the many Georgetown-sponsored programs that aim to cultivate ess both on and off campus.
While the university’s past may once have been rooted in an institution of forced labor and racial inequality, today, it stands among the top Catholic universities for its progressive outlook and ethnic diversity. In a national climate tense with fears over racial profiling, Georgetown’s lectures, panels and campus resources provide an open space to start a conversation about these issues and to gradually work towards a more inclusive future.
Amid this still-forming history, it seems fitting that Healy Hall, built by a president admired for his progressive vision, stands at the center of campus as a testament to the ever-adapting strength of Georgetown’s multicultural identity.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.