During Georgetown Visitation’s Founders Day on Oct. 11, students cover seed-lined sheets of paper bearing student and teacher notes, poems, and prayers in Visitation’s new remembrance garden that honors the lives of enslaved people who lived and worked at the school from 1800 until D.C. emancipation in 1862. (Photo courtesy of Georgetown Visitation)
During Georgetown Visitation’s Founders Day on Oct. 11, students cover seed-lined sheets of paper bearing student and teacher notes, poems, and prayers in Visitation’s new remembrance garden that honors the lives of enslaved people who lived and worked at the school from 1800 until D.C. emancipation in 1862. (Photo courtesy of Georgetown Visitation)

Each year, the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School community in Washington, D.C., gathers to celebrate Founders Day to honor the history, tradition and spirituality of the school sponsored by the Sisters of the Visitation that was founded in 1799 and is one of the oldest Catholic girls’ schools in the United States.

But this year’s commemoration on Oct. 11 included a focus on a painful chapter in the school’s history that was highlighted in an extensive report issued this May, The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation, which presented archival research on 107 enslaved people known to have been bought, sold and hired out by the Visitation order’s convent at the school between 1800 and 1862.

The preface to that research report noted that the project’s goal “is to encourage critical thinking, reflection, prayer and action within our monastery and school community. We hope to do so with honesty, humility and with an eye to restoring the dignity and humanity of the people who had been enslaved at Visitation…”

For Georgetown Visitation students like Ne’Miya McKnight and Taya Toomer, both African Americans and members of the school’s class of 2021, that window into the school’s past on Founders Day offered an opportunity to remember and honor the legacy of people whose unsung contributions helped build the school they know today.

“They were here. They helped build our history, our foundation,” said Toomer.

During the Founders Day activity, the names of the enslaved people were read, and then students were encouraged to write a prayer, poem or letter, or make a drawing on sheets of paper pressed with forget-me-not seeds, which they then planted in a special remembrance garden on campus.

McKnight said she wrote a prayer “asking God to let their souls rest in heaven” and to let them know that their lives had an impact on the increasingly diverse school community.

“People of color can now be the students or be the nuns and not just have to work with them,” she said, adding that she saw the recognition of those enslaved people as a sign of hope for the Visitation school community.

McKnight, who is Baptist and earlier attended St. Francis Xavier School in Washington, said she feels like she is part of a “diverse sisterhood” at Georgetown Visitation.

“Their legacy is being passed on,” Toomer said. “The fact it was hidden so long is concerning to me. It should be talked about now.”

McKnight echoed that sentiment, saying, “They should make sure every Visitation girl that walks through these halls knows enslaved people were here, what they had to endure” and be knowledgeable about their lives and hardships.

Reckoning with the past

At the school’s 2017 Founders Day, Visitation Sister Mary Berchmans Hannan, the convent’s mother superior and the president emerita of Georgetown Visitation, discussed the joint school-monastery research project that had begun one year earlier, sponsored by its St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center, which has a mission of promoting the school’s Salesian spirituality and preserving its history.

“Sadly, like so many educational institutions of the early and mid-1800s, our religious community also owned enslaved persons, and these individuals contributed to the monastery and school’s success,” she said, adding, “Looking at this period in the history of our religious community through the lens of the 21st century is indeed difficult.”

In a related letter to the school’s alumnae at that time, Sister Mary Berchmans said, “We undertake this work at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. Daily, we see evidence of the deep wounds slavery has left on us as a nation. We want not only to acknowledge this painful part of our history, but to really examine it; not just to reflect on this pain, but to take clear steps forward to ensure our community is welcoming and inclusive; not just to improve our community within these walls, but to use these insights to make our world a more equitable place for all human beings.”

In recent years, Georgetown Visitation’s neighbor, Georgetown University has also reckoned with its historic ties to slavery and how that should shape its educational mission today. In 1838, 272 enslaved men, women and children were sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus to two Louisiana plantation owners, in order to ensure the financial survival of Georgetown College and its Preparatory Department (the forerunner of Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland) sponsored by the Jesuits.

For Georgetown University, that reckoning with its slavery past has included extensive research, ongoing dialogue with descendants, a public apology offered by the Society of Jesus at a 2017 liturgy at Georgetown, and the renaming of two campus buildings that had been named after two Jesuit priests who played key roles in the 1838 sale.

This past spring, Georgetown Preparatory School displayed an extensive exhibit that traced its ties to slavery, as part of a special Year of Reconciliation at the school that included related discussions, presentations and guest speakers for students, faculty and staff at school assemblies. And this past summer, a group of rising seniors from Gonzaga College High School in Washington researched their school’s connection to slavery.

The Visitation project was led by Dr. Susan Nalezyty, an experienced historian hired by the Salesian Center to serve as the school’s full-time archivist. She drew on census and other public records, as well as documents assembled by Visitation Sister Mada-anne Gell, the monastery archivist. The project’s steering committee included representatives from the Salesian Center and from Visitation’s administration and its religion, history and English departments and the co-coordinators of its diversity program.

“Any historical document is like looking through a keyhole in the room,” Nalezyty said.

Those archival materials have been scanned and, like the report itself, posted online. The archivist noted that some of the documents are hard to read.

“They’re not uplifting. They’re transactional. It’s just business,” she said of the records of how the Visitation sisters of that era were involved in business transactions that sometimes involved the sale of enslaved people provided to the order by the families of some of the sisters who had grown up on plantations in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., where slavery was regarded as acceptable and part of the fabric of their lives.

A cultural and moral paradox

Noting the cultural paradox of slavery in the United States’ first century, Nalezyty said, “Enslavement and our ideals of liberty have coexisted from the beginning of our country. That the sisters owned slaves makes them not dissimilar from their neighbors and other religious members. They’re deeply typical of their time.”

Nalezyty’s research report pointed out that of the first 12 U.S. presidents, only the second president, John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, did not enslave people.

The history project’s research summary written by the school archivist notes in unvarnished words that “Documentary evidence found in public repositories and the Monastery Archives provides an essential historical context for understanding that Georgetown Visitation subsidized its mission by the forced labor and the sale of enslaved people, from a year after its founding in 1800 to when slavery was made illegal by the federal government in the District of Columbia in 1862.”

The evil of slavery as it existed during those years at Georgetown Visitation can be seen in the report’s listing of the 107 enslaved people connected to the school and convent, including “Prudence: In 1822, sold by the Convent (with her child) for $150.”

Learning that history has been difficult and painful, said Sister Mary Berchmans.

“The power of a culture can blind its members to moral values, and I believe we’re in the same kind of situation today,” she said.

Sister Mary Berchmans, a 1948 alumna of Georgetown Visitation who has been a Visitation Sister for nearly seven decades and formerly served as a teacher, headmistress and president at the school, said, “I think it’s important for us to acknowledge the truth of what happened. We’re doing so with great sorrow.”

Nalezyty pointed out a key way that history relates to the Georgetown Visitation community today: “We teach and pray in buildings that were part of this history.”

The Visitation Sisters hold a Holy Hour every Friday afternoon in their monastery chapel, to pray for the enslaved people and their descendants. The Visitation Sister said that her order and the school community are committed to praying and working for social justice and racial equality and understanding.

“As Catholic religious women, we have a responsibility to do all we can to ameliorate problems in society today, especially faced by people of color,” she said. “We have to learn from the past in order to act in a faith-filled manner in recognizing the sacredness of every person.”

Restoring people to memory

The report’s preface notes, “The research assembled here restores the enslaved community to the school and Convent’s memory.”

Daniel Kerns Jr., Georgetown Visitation’s head of school who also served on the steering committee for the project, said the research humanized the enslaved men, women and children connected to Visitation’s history.

It was fitting that their story be shared at the school’s Founders Day, Kerns said. “We had 107 other founders who were critical to Visitation, to our growth and our prosperity… We have to look at these people as cofounders” and give them the recognition and acknowledgement that they deserve, he said.

Nalezyty said documents show that the enslaved people at Georgetown Visitation included carpenters and other skilled laborers who may have worked on buildings during a time of great expansion on the campus. “Enslaved people were cooking, cleaning and harvesting crops,” she said.

Census records, the monastery archives and other records show that slavery was part of the Georgetown Visitation community throughout its first six decades of existence. The report’s timeline notes that after the school’s legendary “three pious ladies” – Alice Lalor, Maria McDermott and Maria Sharpe – founded the school in 1799 and became founding members of the Visitation convent, the 1800 census one year later counted an enslaved person there.

The report notes that their spiritual director, Jesuit Father Leonard Neale – who served as president of Georgetown College from 1799 to 1806 and as archbishop of Baltimore from 1815 until his death two years later – was himself a slaveholder, having grown up in Port Tobacco, Maryland, where the plantation system was entrenched.

An 1819 plan for the Visitation grounds includes an area for living quarters for the enslaved community there which is now a parking lot on campus, and Nalezyty’s research found that an old building there long known as the “slave cabin” was likely a dairy building.

Slavery’s human impact

Like its neighbor Georgetown College, Georgetown Visitation during its first decades relied on the economic benefits of slavery to sustain its school and convent during financially challenging times, like the Panic of 1819, and also to provide resources and possibly laborers for its expanding building program. The report describes how one of the sisters, Elizabeth Lancaster, inherited what monastery records listed as “negro property,” leading to seven people being sold with proceeds benefitting Georgetown Visitation, including a woman named Betty and her three children, sold for $550.

The report’s timeline traces how the enslaved population at Visitation varied over those years, with the 1820 census listing 13 enslaved people, with 10 counted in the 1830 census, only three in the 1840 census, and 17 in the 1850 census. The research found that the 1860 miscounted the enslaved population at Visitation, which then numbered at least 11 people. In the census records, enslaved people counted at Visitation were often listed as unnamed men and women and boys and girls.

A section of the report titled “Recovering the identities,” also written by Nalezyty, notes how sacramental records at nearby Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown show how the lives of enslaved people and free men and women of color were interwoven in that part of Washington, D.C. A chart shows that between 1835-53, 91 children of free black parents were baptized at Holy Trinity, while 87 children were baptized from families where one or both parents were enslaved.

One of those African American Catholic families was led by Ignatius and Susan Tilghman, who had all of their eight children while being enslaved at Visitation and records at Holy Trinity show that at least five of their children were baptized there. The research project found that after D.C. emancipation in 1862, Ignatius worked as a porter, gardener and whitewasher, while Susan over the years worked as a cook, servant and nurse. Records show that their children included Mary Elizabeth Tilghman, a teacher; Charles Tilghman, a porter; and Theodore Tilghman, a cook.

Other African American Catholics enslaved at Georgetown Visitation included Elizabeth Weldon, who as a 24-year-old bought her freedom from the convent in 1859 for $1; and Jane Mahoney, a 22-year-old who bought her freedom that year for $5. The report notes that they and two other women who bought their freedom around that time “had male family members who remained enslaved on campus, two of whom had building experience, and thus provided a much-needed type of labor at the Convent.”

The detailed examination of Georgetown Visitation’s connection to slavery in its history “is a very difficult thing to read, understand and grapple with,” said Kerns, noting that students have asked questions like “How can people of faith allow this to happen?”

The introduction to the report noted that the research findings will be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and some of its extracurricular activities. Students in its Kaleidoscope group help plan and lead an annual Diversity Day at Visitation.

“The instructional piece is important, to be sure the history we’re teaching students is transparent and touching on this aspect of our history,” said Kerns. “…I think this has a direct impact on the way they treat other people, with a renewed sense of humanity.”

This year marked the 25th anniversary of a devastating 1993 fire in Georgetown Visitation’s historic main building, and the community rallied then around the slogan “The Spirit Rebuilds the Place” to rebuild and modernize that facility. Kerns said that same spirit can guide the school as it faces its slavery past and works for a better future. “If that spirit is moving us now 25 years after the fire, we then have the ability to rebuild a more welcoming and inclusive place,” he said.

‘We Choose to Remember’

The Founders Day activities at Georgetown Visitation this fall opened with the reading of the lyrics of a song by Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. commissioned by Georgetown University, “We Choose to Remember,” which says that remembrance of enslaved people is necessary, to “honor the names of the unnamed,” because “we can’t afford to forget.”

Visitation student Taya Toomer said, “I just want them to be remembered. They were forgotten for so long… Everyone should know they were here and helped us build our community.”

For her, that story has a personal connection. “As an African American girl, for me slavery wasn’t that long ago,” she said, noting that her great grandmother who is still living has a maternal ancestor who was enslaved.

Toomer added, “I just want people in our community to know slavery wasn’t something so far away. It wasn’t in a mythical country. It happened here. It happened in our school.”

Her classmate Ne’Miya McKnight noted, “If you really think about it, slavery isn’t just people of color’s history. It’s everyone’s history. Everyone was affected by it. It has to be acknowledged.”

And that story has implications now, McKnight said, adding, “There’s still people out there today suffering from slavery and its effect on modern times and modern people.”

McKnight hopes the Georgetown Visitation report “will open people’s eyes to matters such as slavery. This happened. There’s no way we can go back in time and change it. The only thing we can do is move forward and make progress.”

That, said Toomer, will require more than reflection on issues regarding racial justice and respect for diversity. “We must do something about it,” she said.

At this year’s Founders Day at Visitation, Toomer said she wrote an apology to the enslaved people for what they endured, and a thank-you for how their contributions to the school in its early decades helped pave the way for the educational opportunities of today’s African American students at Visitation.

Those students are living legacies to them, she said.