Georgetown Visitation Wrestles with its Own History of Owning Enslaved People

As well documented, Georgetown University is wrestling with its history of owning enslaved people, and the sad choice it made in 1838 to sell 272 of them to stave off financial ruin. But less prominent is the similar process taking place next door to the university at Georgetown Visitation, which has its own history of owning enslaved people.

Formed in 1799, it was not unusual for Georgetown Visitation to own enslaved people. Slavery was common in Georgetown. But like Georgetown College next door, Visitation made several strategic sales of the humans they owned. For instance, in 1821 Visitation was given four enslaved people, including a pregnant woman and two children. Viewing the gift as more of a financial burden than a boon, the sisters in charge of the school sold the enslaved people (which included the newly born infant of the pregnant woman).

This sale was transacted in the wake of the construction of the school’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart. And the financial burden of the construction certainly contributed to the decision.

You can read this story for yourself in the report commissioned by Visitation in 2016 and published last year. It came from the school’s decision to hire Dr. Susan Nalezyty to serve as a full-time archivist. One of the layers that this report discusses is how previous histories had whitewashed the history. For instance, a history written in 1895 describes how a man enslaved by Visitation was lent out to brickyards in Georgetown, which paid Visitation in form of bricks carried back by the enslaved man. These bricks became the foundation of the Chapel, according to the history. The 2016 report concludes that this is probably not true. In fact, an enslaved man who worked in brickyards in Georgetown was among the five people sold by Visitation. But the chapel was completed before they received him as a gift.

The report attempts to document all the people owned by Visitation and chart their histories. Ultimately it identifies 107 people, many by name. It also charts several of the families’ histories after emancipation. The project also admirably made the source documents available online for research.

The report leaves open the question of what debt the institution owes morally or financially to the descendants of the enslaved peoples. But regardless of the respective arguments on that question, the discussion is far richer with this research than without.

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