Most of the men and women who filed into an ornate chapel at Georgetown University to the sounds of “Amazing Grace” had never set foot on the Gothic college campus before.
But all of them — close to 200, from schoolchildren to elderly men and women — were intimately connected with the college: Their ancestors were sold as slaves to finance the college’s future.
“Right from the start, I felt my eyes filling up with tears, just from the realization of where we are and why we are here,” Mary D. Williams-Wagner said after she arrived at the campus on Tuesday.
Williams-Wagner learned a year ago that her ancestors were among a group of 272 slaves sold by Maryland’s Jesuit priests in 1838. The proceeds of the sale paid down debts to shore up the floundering young Georgetown University. That sale became well known only last year, through the research of genealogists and then widespread publicity.
Now, the university is grappling with how to respond to the new knowledge of its history — as are hundreds of people who have learned their ancestors were once enslaved by men of God and then sold by those priests to even more terrible slavery in Louisiana.
A worship service at the chapel Tuesday, part of a full day of events in which Georgetown renamed a building in honor of the first of the 272 slaves listed on the document of sale, was the first time Georgetown has gathered these descendants together on campus.
Sandra Green Thomas, who has become a leader in the new community that the descendants have formed, spoke during the service. “Their pain was unparalleled,” she said about the people who were enslaved. “Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African American origin in the United States. All African Americans have hungered and thirsted for the bounty of America.”
She spoke also of the slaves’ and their descendants’ faith — faith in the ever-deferred promise of America and in the Catholic religion their Jesuit captors taught them. Even when they were sold to Louisiana and distant from a church, many of the 272 slaves kept their religion and passed it on to their descendants.
That tradition has lasted through to the present. Many of the descendants who learned about their family history in the past year or two grew up in Catholic families and were staggered to learn that the faith that extended through their family for years was the legacy of slavery.
The injustices that the 272 slaves experienced at the hands of the Jesuits, Green Thomas said, “their descendants are still experiencing them today.” She also noted that the promise of forgiveness after atonement is a core belief of the Catholic faith so many of them share, and that the purpose of this gathering was penance.
Georgetown University President John DeGioia apologized to the descendants, as did Bishop Barry Knestout, who led the service in place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl after the cardinal was called to Pittsburgh for a friend’s funeral.
The Rev. Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, spoke of the Maryland Jesuits who owned the slaves in the 1830s. “Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stand before you and say we have greatly sinned,” he said. “With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on, but embrace moving forward with hope.”
Like many other descendants, Williams-Wagner first learned of her family’s roots after reading a front-page New York Times article a year ago about the Georgetown slave sale. She and her brother read that the slaves were sold to Maringouin, La. — the tiny town where their mother grew up. Soon they learned that they were related to Isaac Hawkins, who was the first slave listed on the sale agreement and whom Georgetown named a building for Tuesday.
Bishop Barry Knestout, Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Washington, opens a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope at Gaston Hall on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington. (Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
Williams-Wagner, who lives in Hawaii, brought her granddaughter Denise Neal to the memorial service. Neal, a student at Ashford University in San Diego, is very interested in Georgetown’s promise to grant extra consideration in admissions to the descendants of the 272 slaves — the same consideration it offers the children of alumni. She spoke to a vice president of the university on Tuesday morning about her chance of transferring to Georgetown to study neuroscience.
The several groups of descendants that have formed since the revelations about their ancestry have a variety of requests for Georgetown. Some say the extra consideration in admissions should come with scholarships. One group wants to start a $1 billion charitable foundation in the slaves’ memory. Another wants a memorial on campus.
The descendants planned a private discussion with Georgetown officials Tuesday afternoon to propose those ideas. But descendant Jessica Tilson said in a tearful speech during the building dedication that she is already grateful for what Georgetown does.
Her infant son died of a rare disease that he was diagnosed with at birth, Tilson said as someone handed her a handful of tissues. When her daughter was later born with the same disease, medical advances — including research at Georgetown Medical School — saved her life. Tilson’s daughter, born sick and weighing less than two pounds, is now 3 years old.
“I know that Isaac and my other ancestors wouldn’t want me to be angry. Because they know that what happened to them was horrible, but they know that their great-great-great-great-granddaughter benefited from their sale,” Tilson said. “I ask that you, Georgetown University, continue extending a helping hand . . . continue with your research.”
The descendants have found various connections to Georgetown and to their ancestors since learning about their past. For many, it sparked genealogical searches, sometimes with brutal emotional impact.
“For most African Americans, we kind of know in an abstract sense that our ancestors were enslaved, but that information is not normally easily obtained in a direct way,” said Carlton Waterhouse, a lawyer representing one of the descendant groups who is asking Georgetown to involve the descendants more in planning a memorial or other forms of recognition. “It just becomes a lot more real for people once they find out who their ancestor was, how they were enslaved, where they were enslaved. I think that information is shocking for everyone. And then the second step is finding out that your church actually enslaved them.”
Williams-Wagner went walking through the Maringouin cemetery, where her mother was buried after she died in 2000. She found the grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of her enslaved relatives, there near her mother. When she learned about the Jesuit sale, it brought back memories of growing up in Illinois in the Catholic Church, where she and her siblings sang in the choir and served in volunteer roles — the only black children among Irish and Italians families.
“We always wondered, ‘Why are we here singing ‘Ave Maria’? Why don’t we get to sing gospel with the other black kids?'” she said Tuesday. Yet the faith she was raised with stuck. She baptized her children, and they baptized theirs.
During the service, Williams-Wagner read onstage from the writings of Frederick Douglass about the awful failings of that church. “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I perceive the widest possible difference,” Douglass wrote. “We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries. . . . We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel and babes sold to purchase Bibles.”
On Tuesday, on a campus established in that religious history, the college’s leaders and the slaves’ descendants tried to find hope and healing in Christian tradition instead.
The Scripture passages chosen for the service included Isaiah 58, which calls “to loose the chains of injustice . . . to set the oppressed free and break every yoke,” and Psalm 137, which refers to being captured and exiled to a foreign land and yet still asked to sing songs of praise to the Lord.
This post has been updated.