An untold story: Gonzaga students uncover school’s past ties to slavery
Oct 8, 2018
For two weeks over the summer, a group of rising seniors from Gonzaga College High School in Washington spent their days combing through hundreds of documents from the Georgetown University archives to find information about their school’s past ties to slavery.
This project began when Ed Donnellan, a history teacher at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, invited Adam Rothman, a professor at Georgetown University, to speak to his students about Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation in November 2016.
One student asked Rothman if the group had found any potential connections between Gonzaga and slavery, and while the professor did not know, he challenged them to uncover that information on their own. So they did.
Donnellan contacted Georgetown’s archives to set up a visit, and during the summer of 2017, a group of six students spent two weeks researching potential ties to slavery, not knowing at the outset what they would find.
“At first it just seemed like a cool opportunity,” said Joe Boland, one of the students doing the research. “Once you started to find things it became addicting to try to go back and try to find more. We were doing something important for our community and for our school.”
The group spent their time looking through hundreds of documents and ledgers of the school’s finances, and began to learn what to look out for to identify enslaved people. The phrase “black boy,” they learned, was used as a pseudonym for “slave.” Anyone listed without a last name was enslaved, whereas those who were listed with last names were free.
During that first summer, the students found evidence of the school’s involvement with two particular enslaved individuals: Isaiah and Gabriel.
Isaiah’s name appeared in the accounting book for Washington Seminary, as a part of an entry to Jerome Mudd for $82. Washington Seminary was the original name of Gonzaga, before it separated from Georgetown University in 1858.
The boys dug deeper and found that Jerome Mudd was a Jesuit in training who taught English at the school, and the payment had been for transporting Isaiah back to St. Thomas Manor in Southern Maryland, which was a plantation owned by Jesuits.
This finding was the first indication that “Gonzaga knew about and actively participated in the business of slavery,” said Boland.
“We were all kind of stunned because Jesuit ideals are equality for all…but when we found the mention of Jerome Mudd in the original faculty list we realized right there that there would be stuff we aren’t going to like, but it is important that we share,” Boland added.
In a similar accounting book, the students found an entry that read, “To Gabriel for weeding in the garden during time of recreation,” paying Gabriel six cents.
The students learned that it was common for young enslaved people to get tipped for working extra hours to instill in them the idea that if they did more work, they would be rewarded.
“For all slaves, the ultimate goal was getting enough money to buy your freedom,” explained Boland. “It was common tactics to keep their slaves with a semblance of hope so they would work hard, but at the end taper off their wages so that they would never be able to buy their freedom.”
Based on this history, the boys were able to infer that Gabriel was likely between the ages of 8 and 12. Two years later, Gabriel showed up in the Georgetown College accounting ledger, saying he had been leased to the school by the Fenwick family for a discount in tuition for their son, who had previously attended Gonzaga.
Six years later, Gabriel was sold for $450.
One of the things Boland said he has learned is how institutionalized slavery really was, displayed by the fact that Gonzaga received food and proceeds from Jesuit-run plantations that owned enslaved people, which they used for finishing and furnishing the school.
Toward the end of their research last summer, the students sat down and decided what they were going to do with the information that they had found.
“The one path we all agreed on was we needed to show the student body first,” said Boland. “They deserve to know. They are paying to go to school, they should know the history of it.”
So the boys made a slideshow and presented it to the school’s administration and then the student body. Even though attendance of the presentation was optional, Boland recalled that the students filled a few classrooms and a few theaters to listen to what they had to say.
Following that presentation, some of the students in the school created a book of poetry expressing their feelings about their school’s past.
Hameed Nelson, an African-American student who also participated in the research, wrote a poem from the perspective of Gabriel, asking, “How can I get you to remember me/ Do I show you the blood I sacrificed for you/ The tears? / My humanity? / My dreams?”
His poem reflects his feeling of responsibility to tell the story of Gabriel and other enslaved people whom they are learning about.
“We have a responsibility to the people who built Gonzaga; to people who made Gonzaga Gonzaga,” said Nelson.
Boland, Nelson and three other rising seniors returned to the archives this summer to continue their research, digging even deeper into the history behind their school.
Keegan Grealish joined the group for the first time this summer after being impacted by the presentation about their research.
“Later in the year people moved on, but I knew there was a lot more to uncover and deeper ways to instill this in our community,” said Grealish, who said what really impacted him was the specific names of enslaved people they talked about.
“It makes it sort of real how it happened at the school I go to,” he said. “They emphasized how it impacts us today, and how there would be no Gonzaga without slavery. That realization is powerful.”
This summer, the students came across several letters from parents of kids attending Washington Seminary, asking the school if they could lease their personal slaves to the school for money off of their child’s tuition. They later found payments that suggest that the school had agreed to those offers.
While last summer they had focused mostly on studying the 1820s and ‘30s, this summer they moved into later decades and discovered that there is evidence of enslaved people at the school until at least 1858, which is only a few years before the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1862.
“It showed all of us that Gonzaga is much more deeply involved than we had believed,” Donnellan said.
But learning about their school’s history hasn’t been all bad. The students said they have enjoyed learning about other pieces of the school’s history along the way, such as the old debate team and math club.
“Knowing something about the history (of Gonzaga), even if it is bad or good, it strengthens our relationship with the school,” said Nelson.
Agreeing, Grealish said the process of looking at documents from the school that hadn’t been opened in hundreds of years forged a special connection between the students and the school, even as they learn about some of the school’s mistakes.
“While we strive to be ‘Men for Others,’ we haven’t been perfect in the past,” said Grealish. “We’ve made mistakes, and I think it is important to acknowledge that.”
Donnellan said participating in this research with the students “really has been a transformational experience,” as well as a rare opportunity to “tell a story that hasn’t been told in 200 years.”
“Reading the documents, touching the documents, has had a profound impact on all of us,” he said. “It takes it to an entirely different level when we realize they are real people we are talking about.”
Illustrating how powerful these documents can be, Donnellan recalled how the group had looked at the bill of sale for the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by Georgetown University in 1838, and noticed that it was the only document that was laminated. When they asked why, they learned how so many of the descendants of those slaves started weeping when they saw it, they needed to protect the document.
“These documents, they bring people’s stories to life,” Donnellan said.
Through this research, Donnellan said they are a part of a national movement, where “people are finally willing to look honestly at the history of institutions,” which he feels is the only way they can really move forward.
“It is fascinating that it has taken us this long. It was just sitting there. These guys found it quickly,” he said. “It speaks to the power of questions. These students started asking the right questions.”
The research also prompted Boland to ask some new questions, such as, “If I had been born 200 years ago, would I have just gone along with it?”
But Nelson noted that if he had been born 200 years ago, he may not have had a choice whether or not to go along with it.
“It is important to know how things could have been,” Nelson said, adding that he is happy “to know that things have changed for the better.”
While society has made large strides since the time the students are studying, Boland still asks himself, “What is so comfortable, so innate, that future generations will look back and criticize us for?”
Donnellan connected this type of reflection to the school’s Jesuit spirituality, which emphasizes the daily examen – a prayer that involves looking back on the day and evaluating one’s actions and feelings.
“It helps me remember I’ve got to take a look at myself every day,” he said.
Donnellan has spoken to colleagues from around the country about the work that the students are doing, and said they were blown away. One woman from New Orleans even offered to help them find out what happened to Gabriel, who they suspect was sold and sent to New Orleans.
As they wrap up their second summer of research, the students are considering what route to take to present their new findings to the school. While all of them will be graduating before next summer, Donnellan hopes to continue this research further with other Gonzaga students.
“It’s a pretty unique opportunity to be able to look through books with your bare hands that are 200 years old,” said Grealish. “The emotions – that moment of truth and realization (when they find something new) makes the hundreds of pages where you found nothing worth it.”
Boland said he hopes to continue to do similar types of research when he goes to college, and is interested in studying social anthropology.
“As a student of Gonzaga, it made me have a more nuanced outlook on things in my own personal life and the institutions around me,” said Boland. “As a kid, you tend to look at things as black and white; this is good, this is bad, but I think just saying the words Jesuit and slave, it is a weird combo.”
“Gonzaga is something I hold pretty dear to my heart…and there are a lot of really good aspects of Gonzaga in my own personal day-to-day life. But then learning about the dark history of your own high school can be pretty shocking,” he continued. “I think it lends itself to the fact that nothing in this world is black or white, nothing is just good or evil, there are portions of these things that are good and bad, and you have to try to be more good and look to resolve those evils in the best way that you can.”
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