Searching for Truth in the Garden: Gonzaga’s History with Slavery

On Sunday, April 28, the Gonzaga community came together to celebrate the opening of Searching for Truth in the Garden: Gonzaga's History with Slavery, an exhibit that is now on display in the Arrupe Commons. The culmination of two and a half years of student research, the exhibit explores Gonzaga's ties to slavery.


The project began in November 2016, when Georgetown University history professor Adam Rothman came to Gonzaga to speak about the research he’s done as a member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery. Created in the fall of 2015, the group was formed to study Georgetown’s history of slavery, including the sale of 272 slaves by the Jesuits in 1838.

In April 2017, the Society of Jesus issued an emotional apology at Georgetown to the descendants of those slaves, all of whom lived on plantations in Maryland that were owned by the Society of Jesus.

In the wake of Professor Rothman’s talk and the Jesuits’ apology, several Gonzaga students decided to dig deeper. With the help of History teacher Ed Donnellan, a group of seven students spent several weeks over the past two summers conducting research in Georgetown University's archives studying accounting books, written histories, enrollment records, and other original documents related to the Jesuits' Washington Seminary on F Street, NW, which was later renamed Gonzaga College and relocated to Eye Street in 1871.

The exhibit now on display in the Arrupe Commons presents what they found, including evidence that the Washington Seminary—like other institutions operated by the Jesuits at the time—received both food and proceeds from several Jesuit-owned plantations in Maryland. They also found reference to the names of several enslaved persons—Isaih, Ned, Mary, Sophie, and Gabriel—in Washington Seminary accounting books.

"When you work with these sorts of historical documents, these fragments in archives, it is a type of puzzle," said Dr. Rothman at the opening event. "It's an intellectual exercise, of sorts, but it's more than that. It's about people's stories. It takes heart and empathy to try to tell these stories and I think that's what these boys have done. It's really incredible."

At the opening, the student researchers and Mr. Donnellan were presented with awards for their work, and four other seniors read original poems that they wrote in response to the research. Father Planning praised the boys for "helping us look at ourselves, and look at ourselves honestly."

"This exploration of what is a very painful past for Gonzaga and for the Society of Jesus is very important," he said. "It's my hope and prayer that this begins something in our community that helps us heal, helps us move forward, and helps us be honest about where we've come from and who we are today."


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Story photos by Tomas Williamson '19
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