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The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church

Wednesday, June 14, 2023 @ 7:00 pm


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Sponsored by National Capital Bank

New York Times Writer Rachel Swarns Discusses Her New Book The 272, in Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian Marcia Chatelain.

In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Jesuit priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church is a powerful account by journalist, author, and professor Rachel L. Swarns, who follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to reveal the harrowing origin story of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Through the saga of the Mahoney family, Swarns illustrates how the Church relied on slave labor and slave sales to sustain its operations and to help finance its expansion. The story begins with Ann Joice, a free Black woman and the matriarch of the Mahoney family. Joice sailed to Maryland in the late 1600s as an indentured servant, but her contract was burned and her freedom stolen. Her descendants, who were enslaved by Jesuit priests, passed down the story of that broken promise for centuries.

One of those descendants, Harry Mahoney, saved lives and the church’s money in the War of 1812, but his children, including Louisa and Anna, were put up for sale in 1838. One daughter managed to escape. The other was sold and shipped to Louisiana. Their descendants would remain apart until Rachel Swarns’s reporting in The New York Times finally reunited them. They would go on to join other GU272 descendants who pressed Georgetown and the Catholic Church to make amends, prodding the institutions to break new ground in the movement for reparations and reconciliation in America. Swarns’s journalism has already started a national conversation about universities with ties to slavery.

The 272 tells a bigger story, demonstrating how slavery fueled the growth of the Catholic Church in America and bringing to light the enslaved people whose forced labor helped to build the largest religious denomination in the nation. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Steven Hahn writes that The 272 is “Outstanding. An incredible project of research and deciphering and storytelling and a devastating indictment, not only of Georgetown but also of the entire Catholic Church, which is now grappling with this history, prodded, in no small measure, by Rachel Swarns’ exceptional reporting.”

Rachel L. Swarns is a journalism professor at New York University and a contributing writer for The New York Times. She is the author of American Tapestry and a co-author of Unseen. Her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Biographers International Organization, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the MacDowell artist residency program, and others.

Marcia Chatelain is a Penn Presidential Compact Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. For twelve years she was Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration and Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America which examines the intricate relationship among African American politicians, civil rights organizations, communities, and the fast food industry.

In 2021, Chatelain received the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Hagley Prize in Business History, The James Beard Foundation Award and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Lawrence W. Levine Award for Franchise. While at Georgetown, she was the recipient of several teaching awards. In 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education named her a Top Influencer in academia in recognition of her social media campaign #FergusonSyllabus, which implored educators to facilitate discussions about the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

Now in its 8th year, Hill Center’s Benjamin Drummond series honors America’s first liberated enslaved people with scholarly and celebratory programs that bring together a diverse group of prominent experts, artists, and public figures throughout the year to explore the Civil War and its aftermath from the African American perspective. Named for the Old Naval Hospital’s first patient, a young African American seaman taken prisoner by Confederated ships, Benjamin Drummond Emancipation Day Celebration marks 161 years since President Abraham Lincoln signed The District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which freed DC’s over 3,000 enslaved people nearly nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Books will be available for sale by East City Bookshop.

The Benjamin Drummond Emancipation Day Celebration series is made possible by National Capital Bank, DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Capitol Hill Community Foundation.

Hill Center is dedicated to making our programming equitable and accessible to all. If cost, accessibility, or other obstacles are a barrier to attending a program, please contact programs@hillcenterdc.org and we will be happy to work out a solution.


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Wednesday, June 14, 2023
7:00 pm
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921 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE
Washington, DC, 20003 United States
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