In the early spring of 1860, E. M. Dudley of Livingston County, Kentucky, ran an ad in the local newspaper offering a “Two Hundred Dollars Reward” for the safe return of his “boy Manuel.” The alert wasn’t an appeal for the return of Dudley’s child. Rather, he was hoping that someone would return the thirty-five-year-old man that Dudley enslaved.
When I teach students about the institution of slavery, I often linger on such notices that ask for assistance in the return of “our girl,” an “uncle,” or an “auntie” back to the slaveholding household where they toiled until the end of their lives, or until a financial opportunity sent them to another family system built upon the peculiar institution. Here, the language of kinship is an insidious way to soften the cruelest of relationships. But enslavers refused to use familial terms when it would have been accurate: to describe their children born out of sexual assault.
In The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, journalist Rachel L. Swarns presents readers with stories of families—how they are constituted, destroyed, and reassembled. The title of the book refers to the 272 women, children, and men sold by Georgetown University’s leadership in 1838. Swarns has chronicled the story of this sale in the pages of the New York Times and scholars have written extensively about it. It has drawn so much attention because of the poignancy of the history as well as the presence of the descendants of the 272 in the most recent public conversations about slavery, reparations, and the need for racial reckonings in the United States. Studying the era from the early days of the Jesuits in the United States to the Civil War, Swarns makes clear that the 1838 sale was just one of many moments in which the exploitation of enslaved people shaped and secured the future of the university and the Jesuit order. At the heart of the book are two families. Swarns introduces us to the people enslaved on the Jesuit-owned plantations in Southern Maryland; they gave birth to the Mahoney and the Queen lineages. Today, their descendants advocate on behalf of their ancestors and themselves. The other family we encounter is one forged by faith: the priests of the Jesuit order. This brotherhood of believers was tasked with establishing a Catholic presence in a newly formed nation and creating Catholic institutions of learning, and we briefly meet some of the Jesuits seeking to better understand their order’s role in the ownership of, and trade in, human beings.
The book begins with the arrival of the Jesuits in Maryland in 1634, nearly a century after the founding of the Jesuits in 1540. “Nobody knew whether Catholicism would thrive or wither in the fledgling colony in those early years, but the first reports weren’t promising,” Swarns writes. Some priests returned to England before a full year had passed; yellow fever and other diseases swept through the community, and Protestant adversaries expelled Catholics from Maryland. Soon, the remaining proselytizing Jesuits would encounter Ann Joice, whose descendants the Jesuits enslaved. Joice arrived in Maryland as an indentured servant for Charles Calvert, the Catholic heir to the Maryland colony. Her captivity was not as strictly defined as the legal and social conditions that would shape the 272 enslaved people who came after her. Swarns explains how indentured servitude allowed for some malleability in the relationships among enslaved peoples and those who held them in service: “In the early decades following the Jesuits’ arrival, Maryland had become a place where they could wrest some autonomy from employers and enslavers and savor a measure of independence and freedom.” But that reality would eventually change, and Joice would feel it intimately. Despite her status as an indentured person, and Calvert’s promise that she would be free after her service had been completed, Joice would encounter a society that had “dramatically curtailed the rights of Black people.” The acceptance of Christ as one’s savior no longer made a difference for one’s prospects for freedom. With the arrival of more settlers and the cultivation of agricultural resources,
enslaved people were increasingly vital to the emerging region, and flexible contracts were no longer honored. Joice’s indenture papers were set on fire, and the ash was all that remained of “the only tangible evidence of her free status.” Eventually, the theft of Joice’s freedom moved from fact to subject of litigation to a family story faintly remembered.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits were able to survive attacks on their southern Maryland plantations during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 because of the enslaved people who served and protected them. In these moments of disorder and unrest, enslaved people hoped that their loyalty would garner protection, or that their flights from bondage would be successful. They were not so fortunate. Despite the advocacy of priests and laypeople who found slavery abhorrent, there was little redress for their captivity.