272 : The Families Who Were Enslaved And Sold To Build The American Catholic Church by Rachel L Swarns
View book: 272 : The Families Who Were Enslaved And Sold To Build The American Catholic Church
“An absolutely essential addition to the history of the Catholic Church, whose involvement in New World slavery sustained the Church and, thereby, helped to entrench enslavement in American society.”–Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello and On Juneteenth
In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Catholic priests made the decision to sell 272 enslaved individuals in order to support their biggest mission endeavor, which is known today as Georgetown University. In this groundbreaking book, journalist, author, and professor Rachel L. Swarns traces the story of one family over nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement, shedding light on the troubling origins of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Through the narrative of the Mahoney family, Swarns exposes how the Church depended on slave labor and the sale of slaves to sustain its operations and finance its expansion. The tale commences with Ann Joice, a free Black woman and the matriarch of the Mahoney family, who arrived in Maryland in the late 1600s as an indentured servant, only to have her contract destroyed and her freedom snatched away. For generations, her enslaved descendants served Jesuit priests, preserving the memory of that broken promise.
Harry Mahoney, one such descendant, managed to save lives and the Church’s money during the War of 1812. However, his children, including Louisa and Anna, were put up for sale in 1838. While one daughter escaped, the other was sold and transported to Louisiana. Their family would remain separated for years until Rachel Swarns’s reporting in The New York Times ultimately reunited them. Together with other descendants of the GU272, they urged Georgetown University and the Catholic Church to rectify the injustices of the past, pushing for reparations and reconciliation in America.
Swarns’s journalism has already sparked a nationwide discussion about universities with ties to slavery. Yet, The 272 delves further, showcasing how slavery played a crucial role in the expansion of the American Catholic Church and bringing to light the stories of the enslaved individuals whose coerced labor contributed to the development of the nation’s largest religious denomination.
“The 272: Exposing the Enslaved Families Behind the American Catholic Church”
The Hidden History of Slavery and the Catholic Church
On January 9, 1837, former President John Quincy Adams stood before the House of Representatives to condemn the atrocities of slavery. Despite being interrupted and shouted at by southern members, Adams continued to read a petition signed by 228 Massachusetts women, urging Congress to end slavery in the District of Columbia. This event inspired the book “The 272,” which reveals the stories of families who were enslaved and sold to build the American Catholic Church.
Author Rachel L. Swarns joined the Karen Hunter Show to discuss her book and shed light on this dark chapter of American history. The book examines the actions of Catholic priests, some of whom were among the largest slaveholders in Maryland, and how they relied on slavery to fund church projects, including the establishment of Georgetown University.
The Hypocrisy of the Church
Swarns highlights the contradiction of Catholic priests, who viewed enslaved individuals as human beings with souls but still bought and sold them as property. These actions were justified using biblical references, such as the responsibility of slaves and masters to each other, as mentioned by Saint Paul. However, there were priests who raised concerns and protested against these actions.
The Story of the 272
The “272” refers to the families who were enslaved and sold by Catholic priests to support the Catholic Church’s expansion. Swarns tells the story of one family, starting with the matriarch Anne Joyce, who came to Maryland as an indentured servant in the 1600s. Despite facing many challenges and losing everything, Anne Joyce maintained a strong belief in freedom and passed on this spirit to her descendants.
The book reveals the struggles and resistance of the enslaved individuals, including violent acts against overseers, filing lawsuits for freedom, and running away. However, their resistance was often met with harsh consequences. For example, after saving the church’s wealth during the War of 1812, Harry Mahoney and his family were promised they would never be sold. However, in 1838, the promise was broken, and they were among the 272 individuals sold.
The Catholic Church’s Reckoning
Georgetown University and the Jesuit priests involved in this history have taken steps to address and make amends for their past actions. They have established funds and partnerships with descendant communities to support projects focused on racial reconciliation and benefit the descendants of those enslaved by the church. However, there is still controversy surrounding the sufficiency of these efforts, with some descendants demanding further reparations.
Examining History and Faith
Swarns, herself a black Catholic, addresses the complexities of being a part of a religion that has a troubled past. She describes being inspired by the black families who remained Catholic despite the church’s involvement in slavery. These families pushed for the church to become more inclusive and true to its espoused ideals of universality.
Swarns emphasizes the importance of examining history, even when uncomfortable, and holding institutions accountable for past actions. She believes that freedom comes from questioning and challenging systems and encourages everyone to embrace curiosity and seek knowledge.
Confronting Ignorance and Embracing Freedom
The conversation with Swarns concludes with a discussion on the importance of fighting against ignorance and embracing the freedom to question and challenge belief systems. It is encouraged for individuals to educate themselves by reading books like “The 272” and engaging in discussions that push for a deeper understanding of history and its impact on current times.
The interview with Swarns serves as a reminder that examining history is essential, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the full story is told, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. By doing so, we can work towards true racial reconciliation and a more inclusive society.