The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

Continuing the conversation

Jesuit universities evaluating connections to slavery

Angela Christaldi ’17

Managing Editor

In the April 27, 2016 issue of The Hawk, Katryna Perera, ’16, first wrote about the potential involvement of Saint Joseph’s University in the 1838 slave sale facilitated by the Maryland Province Jesuits, who founded Old Saint Joseph’s Church in Philadelphia as well as what is now Saint Joseph’s University. This story is part of an ongoing series that will explore the history of and the potential connection between Saint Joseph’s University and the institution of slavery.

Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia announced earlier this month that descendants of 272 slaves sold in 1838 by the Maryland Province Jesuits would receive the same edge in the admission process that legacy applicants to the university do.

Georgetown, the oldest Jesuit university in America, was founded in 1789. The school was nearly bankrupt at the time of the sale, and the slaves were sold in order to help pay off the debts the university had incurred and allow it to continue operating.

Randall Miller, Ph.D., professor of history, said Georgetown’s attempts at reparations are significant because of its status as one of America’s elite universities.

“I think it’s important because it’s Georgetown, a prominent university but also a prominent Jesuit university,” said Randall Miller, Ph.D., professor of history. “Even if Jesuit schools weren’t doing something about this already, this certainly has to be encouragement to do something about it.”

Miller, who specializes in the American Civil War and the successive period of Reconstruction, went on to say that even if Georgetown hadn’t made such steps, other universities would likely still be examining their history more closely after the sale of the slaves—and Georgetown’s efforts to acknowledge this part of its history—became a national story earlier this year.

“What do you do with the knowledge that you’ve got? Certainly you want to know your own history, but what obligations do you have to, and because of, that history?” Miller asked. “That’s really what Georgetown is wrestling with, the extent to which there should be, if any, reparations.”

In addition to the change to the admissions process, DeGioia also announced that the university would be renaming two of its buildings that formerly bore the names of two Jesuit presidents involved in the 1838 sale of the slaves. Isaac Hall is named for the first person listed in the 1838 sale record, and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, for a sister in the Oblate Sisters of Providence and a woman of color who, in the 19th century, founded a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood.

The school also has tentative plans to create a memorial on campus dedicated to the 272 men, women and children who were sold in 1838 and to launch a scholarship fund allotted to work toward eradicating the current racial injustices faced by people of color in the United States

Tia Pratt, Ph.D., visiting instructor of sociology, said that in order for the restorative justice that Georgetown is executing to actually have meaning, it needs to be sincere.

“If it’s really about an effort of confronting the past, understanding how the past shapes the present, and deciding as a community what you want the future to look like, then it’s important,” Pratt said. “If it’s part of the curriculum, if it’s part of the culture that [Georgetown] is built on, the money made literally on the backs of these people, then it makes a difference.”

Any direct links between the 1838 sale of slaves and Saint Joseph’s University remain unclear, but Miller said that in addition to his own research, he knows of other Saint Joseph’s faculty members and students who are doing their own research into potential connections.

“The extent to which [the money from the sale] contributed to Old Saint Joseph’s for 1851, to make it viable, and that could spill over into setting up the school, I’m not sure,” he said, reiterating what he told The Hawk earlier this year. “But certainly there is at least some connection,” he said.

For Miller, one connection to explore is Felix Joseph Barbelin, S.J., Saint Joseph’s first president. Barbelin was transferred to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., in 1838, to serve first as a curate, then as pastor of Old Saint Joseph’s Church. In 1852, he was named the first president of Saint Joseph’s College, which later became Saint Joseph’s University.

“Even if it’s found that there is no direct connection here, Barbelin is still a connection of sorts,” Miller said. “How close does it have to be for us to acknowledge that, even if we’re not a part of the direct history, we’re part of that greater history?”

As a way for Saint Joseph’s to acknowledge that history, the university will be hosting a panel entitled, “Living With the Sins of the Past: Perspectives on Jesuit Slaveholding” at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 18 in the Cardinal Foley Center.

The keynote speaker will be Sister Cora Marie Billings, of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, whose grandfather was one of the slaves owned by the Maryland Province Jesuits. The panel will discuss the history of Jesuit slaveholding and the best way for Saint Joseph’s, as a Jesuit university, to acknowledge this history.

“We have to look at the truth of the situation and ask the hard questions,” said Dan Joyce, S.J., ’88, executive director of Mission Programs.

Joyce said he hopes the panel will lead to a more open conversation about racial issues in the Church.

Pratt, who studies Black Catholicism, said that there are absolutely still racial issues in the Church.

“To a certain extent I can see why someone doesn’t want to confront issues of structural racism and acknowledge how they have benefitted from it,” Pratt said. “The whole idea of, ‘That was hundreds of years ago, that has nothing to do with me!’ It has everything to do with you when you’re benefitting from that culture. Sure, you weren’t there 200 years ago, but that doesn’t mean you’re not benefiting from that system.”

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