Hakeem Smith, a member of the class of 2018 at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, views the beginning of a recent exhibit at the school, “Endowment of Tears, Hope for Reconciliation,” that examined Prep’s historic ties to slavery. (CS photo by Mark ZIimmermann)
Hakeem Smith, a member of the class of 2018 at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, views the beginning of a recent exhibit at the school, “Endowment of Tears, Hope for Reconciliation,” that examined Prep’s historic ties to slavery. (CS photo by Mark ZIimmermann)

As the school day begins in many classrooms, a recent exhibit at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland, started with a roll call.

But in the “Endowment of Tears, Hope for Reconciliation” exhibit in the school’s Robert Southwell Library, the roll call listed the names and ages of 12 enslaved teenagers on Jesuit farms in Maryland from 180 years ago, whose story, it turns out, is woven into the school’s history.

The exhibit’s opening roll call read: Basil and Cornelius “Neely" Hawkins, 13; Robert, Sam and David Queen, 14; Austin, 15; Tom, Abraham and Tom, 16; Remus, 17; and Anderson and William, 18.

In 1838, those teens were among 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus to two Louisiana plantation owners, in order to ensure the financial survival of Georgetown College and its Preparatory Department (the forerunner of Georgetown Preparatory School) sponsored by the Jesuits. Their names were drawn from a census taken that year of the enslaved people on the Jesuits’ Maryland plantations.

“If I was alive at that time, that likely could be me,” said Hakeem Smith, a member of Georgetown Prep’s class of 2018 who was president of the school’s Black Student Association.

That point was echoed by Dr. Stephen Ochs, the Lawler Chair of History at Georgetown Preparatory School who did the research and writing and gathered images for the exhibit, which was designed by Prep art teacher Michael Foster in 41 panels measuring four feet wide and eight feet high.

“These guys (in the exhibit’s opening roll call) could be our guys today,” Ochs said.

Learning that young men around the same age as current Prep students had not only been enslaved by the Society of Jesus, but sold to sustain the school’s future “really touched me and bothered me, and I wanted to tell our guys about that,” he said. “…I knew that would resonate with them. I said, ‘They could be sitting next to you in assembly and be one of your brothers.’”

Smith, now a student at the University of Pittsburgh, said it was important for that story to be told, and for students and other members of the school’s community to learn from it.

“The history behind this is why we’re here today. Because of the 272, we’re able to attend a prestigious school like Prep,” he said.

Georgetown Preparatory School was founded along with Georgetown University in 1789 by Baltimore Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States. Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic university in the United States, and Georgetown Prep is the nation’s oldest Catholic boarding and day school for young men, now serving 494 students. The two Jesuit schools initially coexisted as part of the same institution, and the exhibit noted that in 1838, about 75 percent of the 154 students on Georgetown’s campus were preparatory students. In 1919, Georgetown Preparatory School opened the doors to its own campus at its present Maryland location.

For Smith, starting the exhibit on the Catholic high school’s historic ties to slavery with a roll call of teen-agers affected by that infamous sale illuminated its human impact.

“It shows these were actual people, not just numbers,” he said. “…These were actual people who had names like you and me, names you hear today. These weren’t objects. They were actual people.”

The exhibit, drawn from documents and illustrations from the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown University, the online Georgetown Slavery Archive and the Georgetown Preparatory School Archives, was on display from May 9 through June 15 and was part of a special Year of Reconciliation at the school. In addition to the exhibit, the year included related discussions, presentations and guest speakers for students, faculty and staff at school assemblies.

Georgetown Preparatory School’s educational efforts followed Georgetown University’s own reckoning in recent years of its historic ties to slavery that has included extensive research, ongoing dialogue with descendants, a public apology offered by the Society of Jesus at a 2017 liturgy at Georgetown, and the renaming of two campus buildings that had been named after two Jesuit priests who played key roles in the 1838 sale, including Father Thomas Mulledy, then the superior of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.

This past spring, memorial plaques were installed at the five major Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, dedicated to the memory of unknown enslaved people buried in cemeteries in the archdiocese.

Other local Catholic high schools have also addressed their institutional ties to slavery, including Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington – founded in 1799 as the first all-girls’ Catholic school in the new United States – which this spring produced an extensive research report, The History of Enslaved People at Visitation. And this summer, a group of rising seniors from Gonzaga College High School in Washington researched their school’s connection to slavery.

“We all wish this was not a part of our history,” said Georgetown Prep’s Ochs, reflecting on the exhibit at his school. He added, “…We need to know this story of the Church’s interaction with African-American members, to understand the injustice that occurred, so we can take steps to make amends.”

The exhibit didn’t mince words about the central role that the financial benefits from slavery at the Jesuits’ Maryland plantations played for Georgetown University and its Preparatory School from their founding in 1789, “in the institution’s birth, growth, day-to-day life, and finally, with the sale of the 272, its ultimate survival.”

One of the last panels in the exhibit noted, “The 272 enslaved persons on Jesuit farms in Maryland and those at Georgetown College constituted a living endowment – coerced benefactors of Georgetown College and Georgetown Prep.” Those enslaved people formed “an endowment of tears” that ensured the schools’ survival, the exhibit said.

For the past 42 years, Ochs has taught history at the all-boys’ Jesuit high school, and the veteran educator said the educational effort during its Year of Reconciliation to examine the past honestly and encourage students to be moved by their faith to work for justice today “is all part of the larger mission of Jesuit schools, to be men for others and to work on behalf of others.”

Ochs has been has written several books, including Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871-1960. “I’ve been really interested in the intersection of Catholic Church history and the intersection of race since my days in graduate school,” he said.

The history teacher said the exhibit at Georgetown Prep was a work of faith that also told a story of faith. Its five sections described the 1838 sale, how it unfolded, the reality of Jesuit slaveholding during colonial times and the sale’s aftermath. The final section, titled “Faces of Change, Hope for Reconciliation,” focused on pioneer African-American students and leaders at Georgetown Prep, its growth into a more diverse community, and its call to promote justice and reconciliation.

The exhibit, Ochs noted, highlighted not only “the evil of slavery and our institutional involvement, but just as importantly, (it showed) the faith that saw the enslaved people through that terrible ordeal.”

Images of a rosary formed a recurring motif in the exhibit’s panels. On a wall of the hallway just outside the library, Hsien-Tung “Tony” Liao, another member of Prep’s class of 2018, did a painting of an enslaved couple looking mournfully across the Potomac River at the Georgetown campus. The woman covers her face with one hand, as if sobbing, and in the other, she holds a rosary.

“You cling to a rosary,” Ochs said. “They (the enslaved people being sold from the Maryland plantations) asked for rosaries to bring with them. It’s a great symbol of how they clung to their faith… They did cling to their faith, and to each other.”

One panel includes the words of a Jesuit, Father Peter Havermans, who like his fellow members of the Society of Jesus, witnessed the enslaved men, women and children being dragged off by force from the Maryland farms. The exhibit described the horror of the roundup, with Father Mulledy, the Jesuit priest who engineered the sale, and Henry Johnson, one of the Louisiana planation owners who was Catholic and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, arriving without warning, joined by sheriffs and constables and their dogs.

The priest described how “one old woman sought my blessing on her knees and begged to know what she had done to deserve this. All the others came to me seeking rosaries.”

Father Havermans called the sale “a tragic and disgraceful affair.” The exhibit also highlighted Archbishop Carroll’s earlier misgivings about the treatment of the enslaved people on the Maryland plantations, but the founding bishop of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, like most of the nation’s founding fathers, accepted the existence of slavery.

During the 1838 roundup, Father Thomas Lilly, a Jesuit priest at St. Inigoes Manor warned some of the enslaved people there to run away and hide in the woods and later welcomed them back. Records show that 206 of the 272 enslaved people in the sale ended up in Louisiana, while the missing 66, and 25 other enslaved people, remained in Maryland.

Father Mulledy had received approval for the sale of the enslaved people from the Jesuit order, provided that husband, wives and children would not be separated, that the enslaved people would be able to freely practice their Catholicism, and that the money would not be used to retire debt but had to be used to support the education of Jesuits. All those terms were ultimately violated, and the priest was removed from his post.

An exhibit panel showed how one year after the sale, Pope Gregory XVI issued an apostolic letter strongly condemning the slave trade, saying it was “unworthy of the Christian name,” and clergy and laypeople were strictly forbidden from defending the practice or engaging in it. The panel noted most American clergy at the time interpreted the pope’s prohibition as applying to the transatlantic African slave trade, not domestic slavery.

Also on display were items demonstrating the ugly reality of slavery, including wrought iron shackles from the 1600s used on slave ships, and an 1824 bill of sale for an enslaved young man in Montgomery County, Maryland, the county where Georgetown Prep is located.

The exhibit noted how the enslaved people relocated from Maryland then faced lives of “brutal labor in the sugar cane fields of Louisiana,” with those words accompanied by an illustration of an overseer holding a whip who watches three enslaved men harvesting tall stalks of sugar and wearing no shirts in the summer heat, while in the background, a man crouches down while he is being whipped.

Yet those enslaved men and women and children, and many of their descendants, kept the Catholic faith.

The exhibit’s rosary motif was based on the carving on a slave tomb in Louisiana.

A later panel shows the only known photo of one of the 272 enslaved people involved in the sale: a picture of Frank Campbell taken in 1906, when he was about 92 or 93. The panel noted that documents show that Frank and his wife Mary Jane had their marriage blessed by a priest and their children baptized in the faith. Campbell bought a plot of his own land during an era when many African Americans in the South were sharecroppers, and the exhibit notes that he and his wife “passed on their faith and their hopes for a better future to their children and subsequent generations.”

Campbell’s story was among those written about by Rachel Swarns of the New York Times, who reported extensively on Georgetown’s legacy of slavery and the descendants of the 272 enslaved people. She spoke to Georgetown Prep students during the school’s Year of Reconciliation.

Another speaker who addressed the students was Melisande Short-Colomb, a grandmother and former New Orleans chef now attending Georgetown University on legacy status, as a descendant of two of the enslaved people who were transported to Louisiana following the 1838 sale – Abraham Mahoney and his wife Mary Queen, who was a cousin of David Queen, one of the teens in the exhibit’s roll call. The exhibit panel noted that Short-Colomb “recalled for the students her memories of her grandmother, who lived to be 95, reciting the rosary in Latin taught to her by her great grandmother, Mary Queen.”

A photo in one of the last panels in the exhibit showed the gravestone of another of the teens from its opening roll call, Neely Hawkins, who died in 1902 at the age of 70. The panel showed a photo of his great-great granddaughter, Maxine Crump – the first African-American TV anchor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – visiting the Catholic cemetery where he was buried.

The exhibit also documents the integration of Georgetown Preparatory School, noting that in 1953, Tony Pierce became its first African American student, and in 1962, Stephen Davis became Prep’s first African American graduate. In 2000, Jeffrey Jones became the first African American dean of students at the school, and from 2007 until his death in 2016, he served as Georgetown Prep’s headmaster. His trademark words were, “Let’s go to work.”

Statistics on a panel show the strides that the Jesuit school has made in welcoming a more diverse student body. During the 2017-18 school year, 17 percent of Prep students were African American, 18 percent were Asian or Asian American, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 60 percent were Caucasian.

Also as part of the school’s Year of Reconciliation, students staged the musical Big River, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Ochs, who led two presentations with students on the school’s connection to slavery, said of the year-long effort, “This whole thing was meant to encourage discussion among our Prep students about relations in our country and also in our school.” The students, he said, were “very forthright and honest” in their discussions.

Michael Foster, who designed the exhibit, was in his first year as an art teacher at Georgetown Prep, and he drew upon earlier experiences in the print industry and in exhibit design. “For me, what I told my class when they went through, was that they are here because of what they’re about to learn in this exhibit,” he said.

John Glennon Jr., then in his second year as headmaster at Georgetown Preparatory School, said Prep was following Georgetown University’s lead in acknowledging and teaching that painful history, and in also seeking healing and reconciliation. In addition to students and faculty, parents and alumni were also invited to view and reflect on the exhibit.

“It’s giving the community an opportunity to engage in a difficult issue, one that we have a responsibility to wrestle with,” he said. “It allows our students and other members of our community to develop a deeper understanding of our history and helps them look at the present in a different light.”

Glennon added, “Hopefully, it will shape what they do in the future to combat injustice and help our society heal from a wound that’s still hurting.”

Two of the students who joined Ochs in leading presentations during the year – Hakeem Smith and Will Boggs, both members of Prep’s class of 2018, agreed that the learning experience was important for all those involved.

“It brought light to an important issue,” said Boggs, who is now attending Harvard University. “…Obviously, that sale was pivotal for the school’s  financial existence,” he said, noting that the Year of Reconciliation at Prep revealed “the direct connection that Georgetown and my high school have to that shameful event in history.”

The teens named in the exhibit’s opening lived miles apart from current Prep students, he said, but their life experiences were worlds apart.

“It means a lot to be part of a movement that’s looking to reconcile with a very tragic element of our past,” said Boggs, who was one of the editors of the school’s Little Hoya newspaper. “I feel in certain ways, it’s a milestone moment for Prep.”

Boggs said it’s important to take stock of and learn from that part of the school’s past. “We’ve taken a great first step. There’s still action to be done,” he said.

Smith said his experiences at Georgetown Preparatory School, including the exhibit and the related activities during the school’s Year of Reconciliation, “changed my life,” reinforcing his desire to combat social injustice wherever it exists.

“Prep gave me that passion, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said.

The exhibit that opened with a roll call of enslaved teens affected by the 1838 sale benefitting Georgetown University and its Preparatory School, closed with this tribute to the 272 enslaved people from the Jesuit farms who became a “living endowment” and “coerced benefactors” ensuring the schools’ survival:

“We stand in their debt; we remember and honor their suffering; we are inspired by their strength and faith; we pray as an institution for their forgiveness; and we renew our commitment to work for justice in our school, community, nation and world.”