"African-Americans have long lived with unanswered questions about their roots, missing branches in their family trees and stubborn silences from elders reluctant to delve into a painful past that extends back to slavery. This month, scores of readers wrote to us, saying they had finally found clues in an unexpected place: an article published in The New York Times.
The story described the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. The men, women and children were owned by the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold — for about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — to help the college now known as Georgetown University stay afloat. We asked readers to contact us if they suspected that their ancestors were among those slaves, who had labored on Jesuit plantations in Maryland before being sold to new owners in Louisiana" NY Times
Well, pilgrims, I am not exactly a "bleeding heart" liberal torn by guilt about the "peculiar institution." My writings should make that clear, but this is an extraordinary story.
I have long held that ancestors should not be condemned for living according to the mores of their times although there were always some who behaved better than the average level of virtue among their contemporaries.
It can be argued that for the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to have held these 272 men, women and children in slavery can be excused if the slaves were treated as fellow children of God in the spirit of St. Paul's epistles, at least one of which is addressed to a slave. It can be argued that a great good was supported by these slaves' labor on the Jesuits plantations in Maryland. That good was the existence of then Georgetown College, now Georgetown University.
What is not acceptable to this pilgrim is the crass decision to sell these people, (the Jesuits clearly thought of them as Brothers and Sisters in Christ) when the farms became unprofitable, a decision made in the sure knowledge that the buyers' future behavior toward the slaves could not be foreseen. In the event the buyers who took them all to Louisiana did not in all cases carry out the terms of the sales and did not treat the people well.
Miraculously many of the slaves continued to remain resolutely Catholic. Many of their descendant remain so until now. Many became prosperous citizens after emancipation.
There was a public outcry after the sales of the slaves by the Jesuits and the two offending priests were called to Rome where they were "re-assigned," presumably by the General of the Society of Jesus. The following year Pope Gregory banned the participation by Catholics in the slave trade but the damage was done for the people literally "sold down the river."
Georgetown University is no longer owned by the Society of Jesus although there is an enduring Jesuit presence there. The university is a non-profit corporation. The university should deal with this matter according to the dictates of its collective conscience but the order owes the descendants of the people it betrayed a great debt in payment of which penance should be done. pl