Yesterday, John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, announced several steps that the university plans to take to address and apologize for its historical entanglement with slavery, including the sale of 272 slaves from which the school profited. One of our recently published books—Slavery's Capitalism, edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman—addresses the critical role that slavery played in the development of American capitalism, and in one chapter, Craig Steven Wilder, Barton L. Weller Professor of History at MIT, specifically examines the relationship that Catholic colleges, including Georgetown, had to slavery and slaves. The below excerpt from Wilder's essay offers historical context for Georgetown's announcement, offering a glimpse of how the university profited off of slavery and how slaves owned and sold by Georgetown were treated.
The bodies and the labor of enslaved people paid the Catholic Church’s debts, including the liabilities of Georgetown College, which was tuition- free during its first forty years. In October 1799 the Roman Catholic Clergy approved the sale of “Kate & her two Children now belonging to Bohemia estate.” In April 1804 the corporation resolved to satisfy its obligations by selling expendable slaves from their Deer Creek property “to humane and Christian masters.” A couple of years later, John Ashton demanded that the clergy give him “ye boy Davy . . . (Simon’s son & now motherless)” from White Marsh to meet a debt. “Whereas, permission . . . was heretofore granted for two slaves of the estate of Bohemia to be sold for the benefit of Geo-town College,” began a March 1808 inquiry from the trustees. Money and people flowed fluidly between the campuses, the churches, and the plantations. As late as 1820, nearly two dozen Georgetown undergraduates vacationed at the horse farm on Newtown plantation. The corporation typically held its meetings at St. Thomas, Newtown, and White Marsh. Robert Plunkett, Georgetown’s founding president, began his ministry at White Marsh, and at least two early presidents had managed Jesuit plantations—Leonard Neale, St. Inigoes; and Francis Neale, St. Thomas—a duty that involved disciplining, acquiring, and disposing of people.
The treatment of enslaved people on the Jesuit farms was alarming. After 1805, the Jesuit brothers began supervising the plantations. “Some years ago Blacks were more easily kept in due subordination and were more patient under the rod of correction than they are now, because then discipline fl ourished, but now it is going to decay,” complained Brother Joseph Mobberly, manager of St. Inigoes. “The pres ent white generation seems to lose sight of the old observation, ‘the better a negro is treated, the worse he becomes.’” Mobberly hired five overseers in the four-year period beginning 1816. He also served as the plantation doctor and only hired trained physicians for emergencies.