At a liturgy and ceremony on April 18 at Georgetown University, that institution’s historic ties to slavery gained a name, and was represented by many faces – more than 115 descendants of all ages who came from across the country, to join Georgetown in honoring their ancestors, the 272 slaves sold by the Maryland Province of Jesuits in 1838 to benefit the university, which was then in financial trouble.
“Behind me is Isaac Hawkins Hall,” said John DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, as a crowd gathered in the university’s Dahlgren quadrangle offered loud applause.
He spoke at a dedication ceremony to rename two buildings on campus – one for Isaac Hawkins, whose name appeared first on the bill of sale that listed the slaves being sold 179 years ago. That building had originally been named for Father Thomas Mulledy, S.J., who as head of the U.S. Jesuits then brokered the sale to two Louisiana plantation owners.
At that ceremony, the other building was named in honor of Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman of color and pioneer educator who in 1820 established a school in Georgetown to teach young African-American girls. Becraft later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an historic order of African-American women religious, and was known for her dedication to her faith and to providing educational opportunities for black children. Anne Marie Becraft Hall had earlier been named for Jesuit Father William McSherry, the university’s president in 1838 who assisted with the sale of the slaves.
The joyful ceremony marking the renaming of those two campus buildings followed a solemn Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, which opened with the slave descendants processing into the room, as a combined choir sang, “Amazing Grace,” which included the words, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
At the liturgy, a Jesuit leader offered a public apology for his order’s involvement in slavery, and for how the university benefitted from the infamous 1838 transaction that split families apart.
Jesuit Father Timothy Kesicki, the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, spoke on behalf of the Society of Jesus, addressing the more than 600 people at the liturgy, including the descendants who sat in the ornate hall’s front rows.
In his homily, he expressed sorrow to the descendants, he noted that the order that established Georgetown had leaders almost two centuries earlier who “enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors.”
In stark terms, he described how some Jesuits in that era had betrayed their calling. “To think that together with those 272 souls, we received the same sacraments; read the same Scriptures; prayed the same prayers; sang the same hymns; and praised the same God; how did we, the Society of Jesus, fail to see all as one body in Christ? We betrayed the very name of Jesus for whom our least Society is named.”
“Because we are profoundly sorry, we stand now before God – and now before you, the descendants of those whom we enslaved – and we apologize for what we have done and what we have failed to do,” the priest said.
Father Kesicki addressed the family members as “justly aggrieved brothers and sisters,” and he said that having acknowledged the Jesuits’ sin and sorrow and having offered an apology, on bended knee, they asked forgiveness, which he understood was the descendants’ choice to bestow, in their time and their way.
“Until then, may we confront together with passion our past, present and future,” said the priest, who also said, “With the pain that will never leave us, we resist moving on, but embrace moving forward… with hope.”
When he finished his homily, the priest bowed his head and walked from the lectern.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout, the vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese of Washington, represented Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the liturgy. Cardinal Wuerl had been scheduled to participate, but he was unable to attend, because that morning he preached at the Funeral Mass of a close friend, Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team who died April 13.
Bishop Knestout noted the timing of the prayer service was fitting just after Holy Week and Easter, when “the Christian world gathered to remember, to look back with sorrow and look to the future with hope.”
He expressed sorrow for the pain caused by Georgetown’s connection to “the institutional sin of slavery.” The bishop noted that the Easter season also offered a time to “look to the present and future with hope, for just as we are the beneficiaries of God’s mercy, forgiveness and the opportunity for new life by faith, so by God’s grace we can participate in restoration and renewal.”
Georgetown University President John DeGioia, who had convened its Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation almost two years ago and announced the university’s response to its recommendations this past fall, also spoke at the liturgy.
“We express our solemn contrition for our participation in slavery and the benefit our institution received,” he said. “We cannot hide from this truth, bury this truth or ignore this truth.”
The leader of the nation’s oldest Catholic university that was founded by the Jesuits in 1789 added, “Slavery remains the original evil of our republic, an evil our university was complicit in, a sin that tore apart families, that through great violence denied and rejected the dignity and humanity of our fellow sisters and brothers.”
The contrition expressed by the university that day, he said, would guide its ongoing work to build a more just world and serve as a catalyst for its efforts to foster solidarity.
“We offer this apology for the sins against your ancestors humbly and without expectations,” DeGioia said. “We entrust ourselves to God, his Spirit and to the grace he freely offers each of us, as we find ways to work together and to rebuild together.”
The university has collaborated with descendants in its work to remember its history of slavery and to work toward reconciliation, and it has announced that descendants’ families will receive the same admissions benefits as other members of the Georgetown community, including faculty, staff and alumni.
This past fall, Georgetown announced that it will establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies. The university has also established a Department of African American studies and offers two courses that deal with the university’s ties to slavery. In March, Georgetown hosted a meeting of a consortium of two dozen U.S. universities examining the history of slavery at their institutions.
At the liturgy, Sandra Green Thomas, the president of the GU272 Descendants Association, spoke of the suffering endured by their ancestors and other enslaved African Americans in a country founded on the ideals of freedom and equality.
“Their pain was unparalleled,” she said, decrying the evils of slavery and racism. “Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African American descent in the United States.”
Describing the evils of slavery, Thomas noted how people were deprived of the fruits of their labors and deprived of the opportunities to develop their minds and reach their potential, as they lived under “soul crushing stress and deprivation.”
Thomas noted how the Catholic faith of those 272 enslaved men, women and children enabled them to transcend the realities of their lives. “No matter how incongruous their existence was with the gospel of God’s love and protection, they clung to their faith, and even when they were denied the opportunity to practice it, they remained faithful and passed it on to subsequent generations,” she said.
Thomas stressed the importance of seeing the face of God in other people, no matter what their race is. “Know when you gaze at another, they are the image and embodiment of God as well, and if you have wronged them, you must seek forgiveness,” she said.
Noting forgiveness is a pillar of the Catholic faith, Thomas said, “We the descendants return to our ancestors’ home place, acknowledging contrition, offering forgiveness, hoping for penance, but more importantly, seeking justice for them and for ourselves.”
Her remarks drew a sustained standing ovation from the more than 600 people attending the liturgy.
During the liturgy, the combined choir that included members of Georgetown University’s student choirs, the group Sounds of Victory and the gospel choir from St. Augustine Parish in Washington sang the words of Psalm 51: “Be merciful O Lord, we have sinned, we have sinned.”
Another descendant, Mary D. Williams-Wagner, read excerpts from the 1845 memoir of Frederick Douglass, the noted orator, abolitionist and former slave, which was written seven years after the Georgetown sale. In searing words, Douglass decried the hypocrisy and violent dehumanization of “the slaveholding religion” practiced by many Christians of that time, which he said was the opposite of true Christianity.
At the dedication ceremony for the renamed buildings, Connor Maytnier, a member of Georgetown’s class of 2017 who participated in the working group, said he hoped that future students, as they learned the stories of the man and woman for whom the buildings are now named, would be inspired to confront the challenges in their own lives and understand the role they must play in working together for justice in today’s world.
Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown and another working group member, emphasized the importance of the university facing the “unvarnished truth” of its past. Chatelain said she has been inspired by the grace of the descendants, as she has met, dined and prayed with them, and she said that as Georgetown students come to understand the legacies of Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft, “they will learn grace will ultimately set us free.”
Also at the ceremony, Karran Harper Royal, the executive director of the GU272 Descendants Association, said that Georgetown’s work with the descendants in seeking healing and reconciliation, as demonstrated by that day’s events, “is the beginning of the journey.”
The journey, she said, can help them better understand together “what America was, what it is, and what it will be.”