The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An elite D.C. girls’ school thought its founding nuns taught slaves to read. Instead, they sold them off for as much as they could.

Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, founded in 1799, owned enslaved people from 1800 until 1862.
Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, founded in 1799, owned enslaved people from 1800 until 1862. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The cash-strapped nuns were desperate to sell their slaves.

It was the 1820s, and debt was piling up for Mother Agnes Brent, superior of the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington. The convent had broken ground on a new chapel, with stunningly poor timing — a few months after the country slumped into an economic collapse spurred by the Panic of 1819.

To fully fund the chapel’s construction, Brent needed money. Fast. Then came an unexpected boon: Relatives of two sisters had four spare slaves, two adults and two children, and offered them as a “gift” to Georgetown Visitation.

Still, Brent wanted to know: Did the mother have to come along with the children? And if she did, would the relatives please pay for her costlier room and board until she was sold?

“If they are so young that they cannot be separated from the mother & the mother be given also, then we would have to request you to get a place for them, free of expense,” Brent wrote in a letter.

Missives like these, documented in a report compiled by a school archivist and historian, have shattered the long-cherished image of the three nuns who founded Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in 1799. The research has plunged the prestigious D.C. private high school, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls educational institutions in the nation, into a year-long reckoning with a past that was far more entangled with the nation’s slave trade than students and staff had ever suspected.

It was common knowledge that the founding nuns owned slaves, but school lore has held that the sisters allowed enslaved children to attend Saturday school and defied the law by teaching them how to read. The 65-page report, which the school has made available online, details the businesslike efficiency with which the nuns sold scores of enslaved people to pay off debts and fund new buildings.

Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved people, including men, women and children, from a year after its founding until 1862, when the federal government made slavery illegal in the District, the report found.

“It’s hard history to read, and that’s the reality of it,” said Caroline Handorf, the director of communications for Georgetown Visitation. “But you can’t move forward unless you understand where you’re coming from.”

Handorf said the report, inspired in part by a similar effort at Georgetown University to come to terms with its slaveholding past, has prompted “really powerful and difficult conversations” on campus. The school held several discussions for students, faculty members, staff and alumnae after the report’s release, as well as two prayer services honoring the enslaved people. It also incorporated the report into the curriculum of AP U.S. history classes.

They thought Georgetown University’s missing slaves were ‘lost.’ The truth was closer to home than anyone knew.

Ne’Miya McKnight, 16, a rising junior at Georgetown Visitation, said the school buzzed about the news for a week or so after the report’s release, but she thought that white students were more shocked than nonwhite students. McKnight, who is African American, said she and her friends, many of whom are black, “were not that struck” by the fact that her school was built through slave labor.

“Slaves built a lot of D.C. — all over the U.S., but D.C. especially,” she said. “We were glad, though, that Visitation was focusing on this history of having enslaved people on campus — not tapping into that energy, exactly, but just acknowledging it.”

Susan Nalezyty, a Georgetown University historian who serves as school archivist, said she found no evidence that the sisters at Visitation had ever held school for their slaves or taught them to read. Nalezyty, who was not available for an interview, wrote that the convent was instead “deeply typical of its time and place,” meaning the sisters bought and sold human beings with impunity.

Previous histories of the school did not include the exact number of enslaved people the sisters owned or the fact that the nuns made a profit by selling human beings.

“Georgetown Visitation subsidized its mission by the forced labor and the sale of enslaved people,” the report concludes. “ . . . This new research enriches Visitation’s already-known history and corrects long-held traditions that were not based on primary sources.”

News of the research and its findings was published Friday by New York University professor Rachel Swarns in an opinion piece for the New York Times. The Catholic Standard ran a story about the report in November.

Joseph Mannard, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor who has written about American nuns’ ties to slavery, said many historians of Catholicism would be unsurprised by slaveholding nuns.

The earliest convents in America were in the South, he said, and nuns spread across the continent from there. Sisters were steeped in — and largely accepted — Southern culture, practices and beliefs, including chattel slavery, according to Mannard. What happened at Georgetown Visitation was the norm.

“The nuns were slaveholders in much the same way other slaveholders were, and they didn’t feel guilt, I don’t think,” Mannard said. “I’m not even sure they thought a lot about it.”

According to Nalezyty’s research, Georgetown Visitation nuns thought about their slaves when they feared for the convent’s bottom line. Though the nuns occasionally took steps to keep families together, the documents otherwise reveal scant concern for the human beings whose sale often kept the convent afloat.

The number of enslaved people at Georgetown Visitation varied from year to year, dipping as low as three in 1840 and as high as 17 a decade later. Between 1819 and 1827, four new convent and school buildings sprung up in what the report calls an “extraordinary” expansion unprecedented in Visitation history — and about 25 slaves were sold to fund them. While remaining on campus, slaves lived “next to the chicken coop and stables,” according to the report; today, the site is a parking lot.

The nuns maneuvered fiercely to receive full payment for every enslaved person they sold. At one point, the sisters filed at least six separate lawsuits at the same time in a bid to recoup tardy fees.

Another time, a Visitation sister complained that the 10 percent commission fee for a Maryland slave seller they had hired was “by far too much.” The seller responded by arguing that the larger fee allowed him to protect slaves by waiting to find a buyer whose morals he could stomach.

“As for other people offering to do it for 5 or less . . . I could do it too had I no conscience,” he said. “The extra trouble I take in selling your negroes [is] worth the 10 per cent.”

The public is just now learning about nuns’ slaveholding practices because of a recently heightened national focus on race, Mannard said.

Anthony Bogues, a professor at Brown University who studies the history and consequences of slavery, said American society is caught between countervailing forces: an increase in overt racism, including recent racist tweets from President Trump, on the one side, and greater efforts to come to terms with the nation’s history of racism and legacy of slavery on the other.

“I think we are at a moment that’s really contradictory,” Bogues said. “First, there’s the main discourse coming from government officials, which is rooted in anti-black racism. Then you have these institutions, like Georgetown University, that are trying to understand their difficult past.”

Georgetown Visitation wanted to join what many see as a national trend of introspection, according to Handorf.

“We as a nation were doing that, were grappling with this history, and we as a school, as a monastery, decided we need to look into our own history as well,” Handorf said.

Her ancestors were Georgetown’s slaves. Now, at age 63, she’s enrolled there — as a college freshman.

McKnight does not need to look far.

She thinks about the report, which came out when she was a freshman, almost every day at school, she said. It rises to mind when she observes a sea of white faces in class or when she glances at old photos of mostly white graduating students.

Sometimes, McKnight’s friends are upset by the fact that, “if we lived during that time, instead of being friends with the nuns, we’d be working for them,” she said.

McKnight, though, focuses on feeling proud that her ancestors’ hands built Georgetown Visitation.

“Because, if you look at it, what’s better: you being the only black girl in that classroom?” she asked. “Or there being no black girls in that classroom?”