Georgetown University has been repenting for one of the darkest chapters of its history — the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 by Jesuit priests to rescue the school from financial disaster.
At a campus gathering Tuesday to honor and remember those slaves, one of their descendants, Sandra Green Thomas said: “Their pain was unparalleled. 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.”
For almost two centuries, few people knew about Georgetown’s decision to auction off its slaves and use the money to help build a pristine, almost achingly beautiful campus in the nation’s capital. It is just the most recent example of the enduring and often unspoken physical legacy of slavery.
Buildings that stand as symbols of American democracy, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol, were erected with the labor of those who were not free. Here are other magnificent American institutions built by slaves or funded by their sale:
The White House
Slaves helped build 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and then labored there for seven presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Andrew Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to the White House Historical Association. The slaves and their families lived in the basement of the president’s home. Below, a drawing from the Library of Congress shows the design of the iconic, white-columned mansion.
The U.S. Capitol
Slaves rented from their owners were involved in almost every stage of the Capitol’s construction, which began in 1793. The federal government relied heavily on those slaves, according to the Architect of the Capitol website, to make it possible for Congress to move from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. Congress unveiled a marker to acknowledge the work of enslaved people in 2012. The image from the Library of Congress below shows the Capitol Dome being erected in 1863 — the year after the District’s 3,000 slaves were emancipated by Congress and President Lincoln.
At George Washington’s renowned Virginia mansion, 317 slaves toiled at the time of his death in 1799. Washington became a slave owner at age 11, according to Lives Bound Together, an exhibit at Mount Vernon that explores the Founding Father’s relationship with slavery. In his will, Washington freed the 123 enslaved people that he owned outright. (Photo by Washington Post)
A number of Brown University’s founders and benefactors built their fortunes on the trans-Atlantic slave trade — profits that were funneled to the Ivy League school in Providence, R.I. The university acknowledged this past in 2006 and later opened a center dedicated to scholarship on the subject and erected a slavery memorial on the campus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
At Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate, about 130 men, women and children were enslaved at any given time, including Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemings. For decades, many historians and Jefferson’s descendants refused to acknowledge her place in Jefferson’s life or the six children they had together. Now the stewards of Monticello are restoring the room where Hemings is believed to have slept just steps away from Jefferson. (Photo by AP/Steve Helber)
Nearly 200 descendants of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown University in 1838 participated in a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope on the campus Tuesday. The university’s president, John DeGioia, apologized for the university’s role in the slave trade. Georgetown named a building in honor of one of those slaves and has promised to give admissions preference to descendants of the slaves. (Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
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