Student-Led Research Sheds Light on Jesuit History with Slavery

Last November, 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.

This past April, 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, six students spent two weeks over the summer conducting research in Georgetown University’s archives. They studied 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.

During Wednesday’s Community Period, the students presented their findings in Cleary Lecture Hall, which was filled to capacity with fellow students and teachers. The presentation was also streamed live to two adjacent classrooms, which were also full.

Through the course of their research, the six students found 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 two enslaved persons—one named Isaih and one named Gabriel—in Washington Seminary accounting books.

“Working with our students in the archives was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a teacher,” says Mr. Donnellan. “The boys were relentless in searching for documents that would shed more light on this painful part of the Jesuits' past. History became real to us with each document we touched.”

The students plan to continue their research, and will present to the community any new findings they discover. In the meantime, students will have the opportunity to come together several times in the coming weeks to discuss and share reactions to the presentation. Administrators and teachers are also incorporating the history into discussions in and out of the classroom to encourage the boys to think about how these findings are reflective of America’s larger history, and how they’re relevant today.

Adam Rothman returned to Gonzaga for the students’ presentation, and spoke to the audience afterwards. “These students did absolutely extraordinary work—the same type of work that my college and graduate students do,” he said. “They set out to answer specific questions about the Jesuits' history that had never been asked before, and they dug deep into the archives to search for answers.”

At the end of the presentation, the students showed an excerpt of the apology that Father Tim Kesicki, SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference, gave at Georgetown University in April. In a service called a "Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope," Father Kesicki—who lives in the Gonzaga Jesuit Community on Eye Street—said, “Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned. In our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.”
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