By Dr. Stephen Ochs
In the spring of 2017, in response to increasing racial polarization in American society and to Pope Francis’s call to make reconciliation a top priority for Catholics, Fr. Scott Pilarz, SJ, president of Georgetown Preparatory School, announced reconciliation as the theme for the 2017–18 school year. He appointed a committee composed of administrators, faculty, students and parents that developed a year-long program of education, reflection and action aimed at exploring and reconciling Georgetown Prep’s historical connections to slavery and promoting dialogue in the Prep community about the current state of race relations at the school and in the nation at large.
The program first featured two presentations that I gave with three students (Will Boggs ’18, Drew Askew-Black ’18, and Hakeem Smith ’18) during school assemblies, as well as one to Prep alumni and parents. Two presenters from outside the school also spoke: Ms. Rachel Swarns of the New York Times and Ms. Meli Short-Colomb, a direct descendant of two of the 272 slaves sold by the Maryland Province in 1838 and a current student at Georgetown University. Each presentation was followed by small group discussions led by faculty, staff and administrators.
The year also featured a student-led, school-wide conversation on race, performances of the musical, “Big River” and the searing drama “The Exonerated” and reflections on reconciliation and race in some of the school’s weekly Examens. Capping the year’s activities, an exhibit in the Southwell Library entitled Georgetown Prep and Slavery: Endowment of Tears, Hope for Reconciliation opened to the Prep community and the wider public on May 9, 2018, and ran through June 13, 2018.
As curator of the exhibit, I was honored to work closely with the students and with Michael Foster of the Fine Arts Department, who created the graphics. The exhibit was based on 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. The exhibit explored the central role that slavery played in establishing, maintaining and rescuing Georgetown College and its largest constituent element, the Preparatory Department, through the sale of 272 enslaved persons on farms owned by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838. At this time in history, 75% of the students at Georgetown College had been prep students. Our title for the exhibit emphasized that the 272 slaves on the Maryland farms and those at Georgetown College constituted a living endowment of coerced benefactors who made both Georgetown University and Georgetown Prep possible. Both the entrance and the exit of the exhibit emphasized the debt owed to the enslaved, declaring on behalf of the institution, “We stand in their debt; we remember and honor their suffering; we are inspired by their strength and faith; and we pray as an institution for their forgiveness.”
In order to help Prep students identify and empathize with the enslaved, the exhibit highlighted enslaved male teenagers both at the Jesuit-owned farms and at Georgetown College who were of the same age as current and past Prep students. Employing the concept of “worlds apart,” the exhibit contrasted the daily lives of the enslaved teenagers—young men who today might very well be Prep students—with those of students in the Preparatory Department at the College between 1789 and 1840. These included Joseph Johnson, the nephew of Henry Johnson, one of the purchasers of the 272. After viewing the exhibit, Keegan Shreves, a Prep junior, wrote, “Reading the story of Gabe [one of the young male slaves] and looking at the illustration [entitled, “Head of a Negro Boy”], I felt a connection to someone my own age. Reading the text and examining the documents, I saw how he attempted to purchase his own freedom in 1827. I felt hope for him, only to learn that the College ended up selling him in 1833.” Senior Emmet John Harrington observed that viewing the exhibit “opened my eyes to see a more personal side of slavery.” Melisande Short-Colomb, a descendant of Mary Queen and Abraham Mahoney of the 272, wrote, “Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful and insightful exhibit. Well done Little Hoyas!”
Dr. Stephen Ochs is Lawler Chair of History at Georgetown Prep.