Georgetown University talks about slave trading in 1838

Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in 1838 to shore up its struggling finances. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2015)


A Georgetown University history professor described to members of the Georgetown Citizens Association how the university financed itself by selling 272 slaves in 1838 and how continues to affect the institution today.

“This was not a hidden history,” Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history, told association members on Feb. 27. However, in 2015, President John DeGioia decided the university needed to study the actions and admit publicly what it had done.

Members of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order founded Georgetown in 1789. From its founding until 1862, income from slavery was the foundation of the university’s growth, Chatelain said. The university’s buildings were constructed with slave labor. Students brought their slaves with them to school.

“The practice intellectualized the idea of racial inferiority,” Chatelain said. “How does it affect the 21st Century?”

At the time of the 1838 sale, the buyers agreed to allow the slaves to keep up with Roman Catholic sacraments, something that was not observed or respected once the sale was completed. Today, she said, the key question is how best to acknowledge the university’s relationship to the institution of slavery.

“The goal is to share the history and institute dialogue about this history. We continue to be in the process,” she said. “To do this, the university made certain the archives were accessible. We have two postdoctoral fellows helping with the research.”

Due to the investigation, Chatelain said some of university staff received hate mail.

“This work is difficult for a university. The relationship with the Catholic church makes it more complicated,” said Chatelain, who is African-American herself. “However, it is an opportunity for us to be real leaders. The work we do is for the public good.”

She then quoted Pope Francis, who during his visit to Washington said, “The United States owed a debt because of slavery.”

Because of the investigation, the university renamed two of its halls in 2017. Two halls, McSherry and Mulledy, were renamed after Anne Marie Becraft and Isaac Hawkins.

The Reverand William McSherry was a Jesuit priest, while The Reverand Thomas F. Mulledy had been president of the university. Both were participants in the 1838 sale. Mulledy actually authorized the sale.

Now the halls are named after Becraft and Hawkins. Becraft founded a Georgetown school for black girls and later became one of the first African-American nuns. Hawkins, Chatelain said, was the first name on the bill of sale in 1838. Chatelain said in April of 2017 the Jesuits issued an apology over slavery.

“I’m incredibly proud of President DeGioia,” she said. “There was a commitment from the university’s president. Other universities have had investigations, but not from a commitment of the university’s president.”

Since, the university has engaged the descendant community by working with hundreds of descendants of the 1838 sale.