How could Georgetown University be involved with slavery?

In 1838, two priests who served as president of the university orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000, or roughly $3.3 million in today’s dollars, to pay off debts at the school. The slaves were sent from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to Louisiana, “where they labored under dreadful conditions,” and families were broken up, according to a report issued by the school committee.

The transaction was one of the most thoroughly documented large sales of enslaved people in history, and the names of many of the people sold are included in bills of sale, a transport manifest and other documents. Genealogical research conducted by Georgetown and other organizations, including The New York Times, has identified many living descendants of the slaves.

How could a Catholic University and Catholic priests be involved with this practice? People in the church can sin and make mistakes. I get that. But this seems like such an obvious and public error.

Was the church not clear on its position – even in the 19th century?

We cannot judge historical figures by our present day standards. Slavery was legal virtually everywhere in the world in the early 19th Century. The anti-slavery movement only took off in the US after 1776. Slavery was legal in Britain until the 1830’s. It was a very controversial issue which led to the US Civil War 1861-65. Maryland was a slave state to the end of the Civil War. Slavery was legal in DC until the US government paid slaveowners to free their slaves in 1862.

Fr. Joel S. Panzer

IN SUPREMO APOSTOLATUS (Apostolic Letter condemning the slave trade, written by Pope Gregory XVI and read during the 4th Provincial Council of Baltimore, December 3, 1839.)

Because slavery was legal in 1838. The Church was just as economically involved with it as everyone else at that time.

Taken in historical context, the school had a problem and found a solution. We can’t judge 1838 by 2016 standards.

Mmmm, no.

“The Church” condemned slavery over and over again from the time of the discovery of the New World until the present day. Pope after pope. The fact that some Jesuits ignored this is shameful.

So, what excellent timing that St Peter Claver, also a Jesuit, has his feast day on Sept 9. St Peter spent his life ministering to slaves in Cartegena and reproaching those who traded in and owned slaves.

We can judge them by 1838 Catholic standards and what they did was sinful, scandalous, and NOT defensible in any way.

Then why did so many popes have galley slaves in their navy?

I think most posters on this thread will find this an interesting read.

A couple of pages down, the author addresses the Jesuits in Maryland.

Well, [DUH].

The Church, it has been said repeatedly, is no museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.

So should we really be surprised that in a place and time that allowed it, that one of its ancillary institutions benefited from sin?

Methinks one should take issue with the Pope or Popes that allowed the New World slave trade to begin, rather than descendants who only benefited from it.


I cant believe how quick some people are to excuse these priests. Sure, may God forgive them, but to say they didn’t know any better is untrue, any Catholic and certainly any priests should be judged ten times as harshly as others for such a crime, and it is a crime, abortion is also legal today but we know it is a crime! And If priests felt powerless to change lives, they should not have made lives worse by splitting up families. Jesus came to set the captives free, these men were representatives of Jesus on earth. It doesn’t get any clearer that that. Absolutely abominable that this happened. May God give all slaves justice. The fact that Georgetown is acknowledging its debt to the descendants of these slaves by offering preference is a really good start. I think they should also offer free tuition.

Ive heard this argument used in similar discussions, and it does make sense, I mean, Im sure lots of things we re doing right now, that many people feel are completely fine, will one day far in the future, be viewed as terrible crimes.

Just like we ask, “how could those people have done those things back then in good conscious”, have to remember, 100+ yrs in the future, people will be saying the exact same things about us right now!

Most of those in the galley were criminals and prisoners of war conscripted for a period of time, not chattel slaves. This is akin to the “chain gang” not slavery.

Yes, some true slaves were bought and sold, and that is wrong. The actions of a few do not constitute church teaching. The Church taught against slavery and continued to do so at the time of the Georgetown events, 200 years removed from the galley ship era.

If you read the link I provided, it goes into this. Many of the galley slaves were criminals, and serving on the galleys was akin to a life sentence, as you stated. Also a portion of the the people termed as galley slaves were people who were bribed to volunteer to serve on the ships. Historians do categorize these people as slaves, though they did volunteer. The rest of the slaves on the ships were prisoners of war, and were often used in exchange for Christian slaves.

As I said, the link I provided is quite interesting.

I think the important piece of all this is that Georgetown is owning up to their past practice and trying to make amends. They are setting an example which seems to me to be honorable.

The Church has made it known to this day that something can be legal and not right, so slavery’s legality at the time is absolutely in no way an excuse.

This is moral relativism to a tee, something the Church says to avoid. Also let’s not use the word “solution” in conjunction with shipping out humans.

Two interesting thing to note about that document: 1) Some in the Church in the United States interpeted it as saying the slave trade is bad, but not the owning of slaves or the breeding of future generations of slaves. As far as I know there was not anything written by the Church at a later date stating that those who interpreted the document that way were doing so incorrectly. 2) The initial document ues the latin word “injuste” (injustly) as in calling for an end to injust molestation of Blacks, Indians, etc. An 1844 translation includes “injustly” while a 1972 translation conspicuously leaves it out.

While In Supremo Apostalatus can be seen as a positive step against slavery (to some extent) we have to consider the Church’s long stance on slavery prior to that, which was for it so long as the ones being enslaved were not Christian.

I agree.

Jesus Himself couldn’t control the sinful actions of his own 12 chosen friends…so I don’t find it too surprising to see that there were Judases in the 19th century.

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