Rachel Swarns' 'The 272' explores how the Catholic Church profited from slavery "You don't hear about enslaved people at Mass or in Sunday school," says Rachel Swarns. Her new book tells the story of 272 enslaved people sold in 1838 to help save what is now Georgetown University.

The Catholic Church profited from slavery — 'The 272' explains how

The Catholic Church profited from slavery — 'The 272' explains how

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Random House
The 272 by Rachel Swarns
Random House

For more than a century, the Catholic Church financed its expansion and its institutions with profits made from the purchase and sale of people they enslaved. This chapter of Church history has only recently come to the attention of the public.

"Without the enslaved, the Catholic Church in the United States as we know it today would not exist," writes author Rachel Swarns. She says the priests prayed for the salvation of the souls of the people they owned, even as they bought and sold their bodies.

In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people, which helped save what is now Georgetown University from bankruptcy and helped stabilize the Jesuits in Maryland. Swarns wrote about this sale in 2016 in the New York Times article "272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What does It owe Their Descendants?"

Swarns' new book — The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church — expands on that article. It tells the story of the Church's history of enslavement in America, while illustrating the consequences by focusing on generations of one family that had several members among those 272 people sold by the Church in 1838. Two descendants of the family she writes about in the book found each other as a result of her New York Times article.

To this day, our contemporary institutions are "deeply connected" to slavery, Swarns says. She hopes that telling multi-generational stories of families associated with these institutions will help make this history more present and more personal. "This isn't this faceless, amorphous thing," Swarns says. "These are people. They have names. And we are connected to that. We are connected to that history today."

Interview Highlights

On what happened on that fall day in November 1838, in Alexandria, Va.

If you had been there on a wharf that day, you would have seen scores of people being loaded onto a ship – forcibly loaded. There were elderly people, husbands and wives, children, babies wailing. These were enslaved people who had been sold and were being shipped down South, far from the people they loved and the world that they knew. They had been owned and enslaved and sold by the nation's most prominent Catholic priests who happened to be among the largest slaveholders in Maryland. And when times got hard, they did what people at the time did — which was to sell their assets. In this case, 272 men, women and children, which they sold to save the college that we now know as Georgetown University.

On the contradictory relationship between the Jesuit priests and the enslaved people working on the Maryland plantations that sustained those priests

They were interested in nurturing the souls of the people that they held captive – but they were also fine with enslaving them and selling their bodies when need be. It was a contradiction that people pointed out – there are these lonely voices along the way. ... But it wasn't enough to persuade the priests or the Church to take a different path.

On the way the Catholic Church justified slavery

Jesuits often point to Saint Paul and passages in the Bible that talk about the responsibility of the enslaved and of masters, too. So there is this history that feels familiar. But in the British colony, in the Americas, it becomes racialized, it becomes hereditary in a way that it was not before. ... Maryland was set up as a place for Catholics, and many Catholics sought refuge there. That was part of the issue as well: The Catholic priests who were persecuted ... wanted to be established. A society established in Maryland meant slave ownership.

On Thomas Mulledy – a Jesuit priest and early president of Georgetown – whose vision for the Catholic Church led to the sale of people enslaved by the Church

He has a vision that is radically different from the vision of the earliest Jesuits. ... He says: Listen, this idea of Catholicism based in a rural, plantation-based kind of system is outdated. The future is in the cities. The future is with the thousands of immigrants coming from Ireland and Germany – and we need to be positioned to capitalize on that. And to do that – to be able to establish schools in these major cities in the Northeast – we need money. And to get that money, we need to sell our assets, these enslaved people. And he was determined to do that.

On the faith of the people enslaved by the Church

It's one of the really interesting and surprising things about this story. You might think to yourself: My goodness, these folks were betrayed by the Catholic Church, enslaved, sold, betrayed by the Church, surely they would leave the Church. When I think about this story, I think, OK, it is certainly a story of heartbreak, yes. But it's also a story of family and faith. And it turns out that the Church itself meant a lot to these families. The Church was not in their minds, you know, controlled by these sinful men who did these things. The Church was more than that. They could not control the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — all of that belongs to those people. And not only did they hold on to their faith, but after the [Civil] War, they became religious leaders, many lay leaders within the institution and tried to reshape it.

On Georgetown University's work to make amends

Georgetown has taken a number of steps to address its history. In 2016, they decided that descendants would have, in effect, legacy status and admissions to Georgetown. They have more recently put into place a plan that they had announced a couple of years ago, which involves them raising $400,000 a year for programs designed to benefit the descendant community. ...

I think there is now a consortium of universities that have this history. ... It's certainly not just Catholic institutions: Harvard ... University of Virginia — there are a number of colleges and universities around the country that are grappling with this. And in terms of the story ... It's important to note, too, that the Church itself, the Jesuits, have come up with a plan to try and address this history as well.

On being Black and Catholic and learning about this history

I was astounded. It knocked me off my feet, I have to be honest. I had written a book about Michelle Obama's enslaved ancestors. I have a better-than-average familiarity with the 19th century and slavery. I consider myself a reasonably educated person. This history is certainly familiar to historians, but it is not well-known at all. I did not know. I am Black and Catholic. I had no idea. ...

Enslaved people have been largely left out of the origin story that is traditionally told about the Catholic Church. You don't hear about enslaved people at Mass or in Sunday school or most anywhere. And so for me, it was like Catholic priests participated in the slave trade? How didn't I know?

On how learning this history has changed her relationship to the Church

It has, but perhaps not in the way that you might expect. I'm a practicing Catholic. I go to Mass on Sundays. And I was doing this research, looking at these records, reading about these families torn apart, as a practicing Catholic, going to Mass, going to Church. In a lot of ways, it has actually deepened my connection to the Church.

As Black Catholic, I didn't always see myself in the Church. ... It's often portrayed as kind of a Northern church, an immigrant church. But now I see myself in the Church and these families who were so determined to hold onto their faith and to make the Church true to what it said it was — a universal church, a church that welcomed and accepted everyone. That has been really inspiring to me to see how they did that and how they worked to reshape the Church.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper, Beth Novey and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.