Georgetown University. (Jeffrey MacMillan)

On Jan. 8, 1810, Francis Scott Key bustled up Capitol Hill to the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. An aspiring lawyer, at 30, Key was known as an evangelical Episcopalian who considered slavery inhumane and the slave trade an outright evil. He was going to file some of the first slave petitions for freedom he had handled, including one for Priscilla Queen against the Rev. Francis Neale — a Jesuit priest, a slaveholder and the incoming president of Georgetown College.

Georgetown University recently and frankly acknowledged its slaveholding past. We are seeing the messy arrangements of slavery in surprising corners of American life.

Queen’s case against Georgetown’s slaveholding president was a pivotal moment in the perpetuation of slavery. In 1838, the Jesuit priests and founders of Georgetown sold 272 slaves to sugar planters in Louisiana and used the proceeds to stabilize the college’s rickety finances. But for years after the American Revolution, the Jesuits fought in courts to protect their hold on slaves. Georgetown’s president and colleagues were not alone in defending slavery. Even so, the effects of their particular actions deserve close scrutiny.

American Jesuits were neither accidental nor inconsequential slaveholders. Eventually accumulating nearly 13,000 acres and more than 200 slaves on at least five Maryland plantations, the Jesuit priests formed a corporation that managed their estates, along with Georgetown College, like a trust. One of its founders, the Rev. John Ashton, took over the management of the nearby White Marsh plantation in 1767 and remained its proprietor for 39 years. In the 1790s, at least 24 members of the Queen family sued Ashton for their freedom in Prince George’s County, arguing that their ancestor was a free woman of color who was an indentured servant. Witnesses testified to a disturbing but essential truth in these cases: that the slaveholding priests were blind and deaf to her claim, thus trapping Queen and three generations of her descendants.

Initially, the Queens’ litigation was successful. Ned Queen, Priscilla’s cousin, won his suit against Ashton, and one branch of the family gained immediate freedom. Ned’s lawyers, Philip Barton Key (Francis’s uncle) and Gabriel Duvall (a future Supreme Court justice), used hearsay evidence about his grandmother’s status, and they persuaded the Maryland general courts of appeal to allow secondhand testimony in exceptional cases such as freedom suits, in which an individual’s personal liberty was on the line.

Enslaved families and their lawyers spoke publicly against the inhumanity of slavery. “Slavery is incompatible with every principle of religion and morality,” one lawyer told the jury. “It is unnatural and contrary to the maxims of political law, more especially in this country, where ‘we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”

As dozens of slaves went to court, the Jesuits took their own quiet but decisive steps. They paid Philip Barton Key to quit representing enslaved families on their plantations, as they put it, “to stop the mouth of lawyer Key.” Although Key appears to have accepted the retainer, he continued to represent the Queens in the 21 cases he had filed earlier in Prince George’s. All were freed.

But another branch of the Queen family remained enslaved. Locked in a battle with Ashton over the court costs, the Georgetown trustees, including Rev. Neale, began considering selling various White Marsh slaves. Georgia traders were beginning to show up in Prince George’s. When Neale moved to Georgetown, Priscilla Queen seized the moment and filed her petition for freedom. So, Neale has the unflattering distinction of being one of the last in a long line of Jesuit priests sued by his enslaved property.

Neither Francis Scott Key’s plea nor the Queens’ previous legal successes won the day. The D.C. justices applied the hearsay rule more strictly than the judges had in the Maryland courts and disallowed much of the favorable testimony used in Ned’s case. The ruling was a crushing blow. Priscilla Queen’s enslavement continued. Worse, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that hearsay could not be used when slaves petitioned for their freedom because slaves were nothing more than property. An avenue of freedom closed as quickly as it had opened.

The Jesuits held on to their slaves for 25 more years. But the effects of their stubborn litigation lasted much longer, helping to deflect the momentum of emancipation after the American Revolution and to solidify the legal principle of slavery as a matter of property. These legacies need reconciliation 200 years later. Georgetown University’s leaders are taking valuable steps, but the responsibility is not solely theirs.

Reconciliation will require an honest reckoning with the past. We will need to ask difficult and unavoidable questions about what reconciliation means for the families whose freedom was delayed. We need to know more about these families and what happened to them. Then we can ask how an institution, such as Georgetown, might resolve its role in perpetuating slavery. It’s time we see and hear these stories and repair the history we share.

The writer is a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellow.