Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, speaks at a 2017 liturgy at Georgetown University held to acknowledge and seek reconciliation for the 272 (OSV News photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard).

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.

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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.

Despite the advocacy of priests and laypeople who found slavery abhorrent, there was little redress for their captivity.

While the enslaved people who labored for the Jesuits at St. Inigoes and White Marsh plantations in Maryland adapted to the routines of life defined by their labor value, they were also on their own journeys to define themselves. Swarns pays attention to their deepening commitment to Catholicism and their building of community among family and friends. Meanwhile, the Jesuits in Georgetown were committing themselves to what the university founder John Carroll called “[t]he object nearest my heart…a college on this continent for the education of youth, which might at the same time be a Seminary for future Clergymen.”

As her account moves from the Jesuit plantations of southern Maryland to the nation’s capital, and as the Jesuits try to grow Georgetown and fulfill the mission of the university, Swarns reveals how the calcification of slavery enabled the strengthening of Jesuit higher education. The Jesuits had long debated the morality of slavery, engaged in sales of enslaved people, and ignored the Vatican’s admonishment of American Catholic slaveholding by the time of the financial crisis of the late 1830s. Maintaining the college, discounting tuition to attract students, and supporting its Jesuit staff presented an endless set of stresses for the college’s overseers. Jesuit and college leaders Thomas F. Mulledy and William McSherry, respectively, reasoned that among the most valuable assets that could enrich Georgetown were the people who toiled in the tobacco fields and cared for the Jesuits in rural areas. In arranging the sale of the 272, they betrayed their promises to not separate the families that had served the order for more than a century. In facilitating the sale of the enslaved people to plantations in Louisiana, they could not ensure families would be kept intact or that they would have what they needed to practice their Catholic faith.

Swarns attempts to illustrate the sheer fear and unyielding anxiety felt by the 272 as they were corralled on ships heading south. We learn a bit about how they re-established themselves on new plantations in Louisiana, battered and fractured but steadfast in their loyalty to their families—and for many, still faithful to the religion of their enslavers. Swarns tell us of Louisa, who consciously continued to choose Catholicism: “Louisa never forgot that Jesuit priests had sold her and her family. But her faith did not belong to those hard men. The prayers, the hymns, the rosary beads, the rituals of the faithful also belonged to her and to the throngs of Black Catholics who had settled in New Orleans.”

From today’s vantage point, a book that engages the ways that the Catholic Church capitalized on slavery can appear like an account that is simply spilling family secrets. Swarns helps us see that while slavery was a matter of business, politics, and religion in the antebellum nation, it was never outside of or unrelated to civil and spiritual matters.


The epilogue brings us to the recent past and to events that I witnessed as a faculty member at Georgetown, where I taught African American history for more than a decade. During that time, I was part of the first iteration of the University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. Swarns introduces us to people like Jeremy Alexander, a Georgetown University employee and descendant of one of the 272, as he gains a greater understanding of the branches and roots of his family tree. She also captures a moment that I will never forget: the day in 2017 when Fr. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, traveled to Georgetown to offer a formal apology for the Jesuits’ involvement in the system of slavery. After he delivered his apology in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, I scanned the room for reactions. His words were met with a range of emotions: skepticism, bewilderment, tears, and exhaustion.

The responses to Kesicki’s apology, as well as the various initiatives that address racial injustice and attend to the needs of communities populated by descendants in Louisiana, are as diverse and broad as any family. Like any family, the individuals who have found themselves through Georgetown’s public engagement with its history of slavery have to contend with family lore and discoveries about those long dead, and many of them have embraced spending more time with the living. Each has their own view of justice for their ancestors, and while there can be no representative story of the complexities of slavery, there can still be the unending and pervasive desire to move and act, to seek reconciliation, and perhaps finally to heal.

The 272
The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church

Rachel L. Swarns
Random House
$28 | 352 pp.

Marcia Chatelain is the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. A graduate of Catholic primary and secondary schools, she makes her home in Washington D.C.

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Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents
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