THE 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, by Rachel L. Swarns

During the War of 1812, a large extended family of Mahoneys lived and labored as enslaved people on several plantations in southern Maryland. They were descendants of a Black woman named Ann Joice, who had arrived from England in approximately 1676 as an indentured servant. For years she served one of Maryland’s richest men, Charles Calvert, as a domestic in his manor house. In 1684 she was transferred to Calvert’s cousin Henry Darnall, a wealthy Catholic, who promptly burned her indenture papers, rendering her a slave for life.

In the midst of the war, Thomas Mulledy and William McSherry, two young Virginians, were students at the small Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) in Washington, D.C., the country’s first Catholic institution of higher learning, then little more than two decades old. Sons of Irish immigrants who had taken up slaveholding, the pair joined the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests founded in 1540 and known the world over for their devotion to education and the creation of schools and colleges. The Jesuits grasped the path to power and wealth in antebellum Maryland, enslaving hundreds of people and operating several wheat and tobacco plantations in the state.

“The 272,” Rachel L. Swarns’s deeply researched and revelatory new book, is the story of the remarkable Mahoney clan and how their lives, nearly a century and a half after Ann Joice’s, intersected with those of Mulledy, McSherry and the Jesuits in one of American slavery’s most withering tragedies. “The 272” is a fascinating meditation on the meaning of slavery and of people converted to property and commodities — assets of wealth and objects of sale. It’s a book that journeys to slavery’s heart of darkness: to the separation of families, the terror of being sold into the vast unknown and of bodies transformed into profits and investments. But it is also the moving human story of some of the people who endured and survived this ordeal, and who have long awaited rediscovery.

Swarns, a contributing writer for The New York Times and a professor of journalism at N.Y.U., is an African American Catholic who was raised on Staten Island. Beginning with an article in The Times in 2016, she revealed the story of the Jesuits as slaveholders and traders, leading to a stunning reckoning by Georgetown University with its past as well as one within the Jesuit order itself. Swarns writes with a keen eye and distinctive voice both about her Black subjects and about the hypocrisy and brutality of their onetime owners. The Jesuits were no monolith of greed and evil, however; Swarns sustains empathy for some who tried, largely unsuccessfully, to protect the enslaved people they had known so closely from the agony of sale that looms over this story.

In Jesuit archives in Europe and the United States, in Maryland state archives and especially in the Georgetown Slavery Archive, Swarns uncovered a profound saga, among a growing number, about a university’s origins and its entanglements with slavery. For so long, at many campuses, including my own, Yale, there have been silences in the books but not in the archives. This booming subfield of historical study is barely 20 years old and has already yielded important monographs, memorials and narrative histories. Swarns’s signal achievement is in piecing together the story of a slow and devastating storm moving over the Maryland horizon, as Jesuit Georgetown, deep in debt from an ambitious building campaign compounded by fiscal mismanagement, resolved in 1838 to sell nearly 300 people in order to ensure its survival.

By then, McSherry had become president of Georgetown, succeeding Mulledy, who took on the job of Jesuit leader for the province of Maryland. Both men believed a sale of human property was the only way to save Georgetown from financial ruin. An agonizing debate among the Jesuits finally culminated in the sale of 272 men, women and children to two Louisiana planters, Henry Johnson, a congressman, and Jesse Batey, a doctor.

The Mahoneys had long possessed a “promise” from the Jesuits closest to them that their family would never be separated. Harry, the patriarch, along with his wife, Anna, had served heroically during the British invasion of St. Mary’s County in 1814, protecting Jesuit property and interests. But when word of the big sale invaded their humble cabins, Swarns writes, “Harry and Anna’s love, on its own, would not be enough to keep their children safe.”

Nor would it protect so many other enslaved families torn apart by the sale. Some Jesuits were outraged by the transaction; others fell upon long-rehearsed justifications about the “immorality” and burdensome unreliability of the enslaved population. The sale to Johnson and Batey netted the Jesuits and Georgetown the tidy sum of $115,000, approximately $422 per person — or a total of about $3.76 million today. Among the 130 passengers on one of the ships hired to transport the sold human beings south to New Orleans were two 70-year-olds and a 2-month-old baby.

When Swarns writes about descendants of the 272, her story is equally compelling, although her narrative sweeps somewhat hurriedly to the Civil War, to “freedom” and beyond. With sparse data to draw upon, she speculates about the lives of two of Harry’s daughters, Anna and Louisa. Anna and her two young children were shipped to one Johnson plantation in Louisiana and then another. Louisa stayed with her parents in Maryland, among a half-dozen Mahoneys left behind. Chronology and family structures can get a little muddled in Swarns’s otherwise beautifully written account. (The book would have benefited from a couple of family trees.) In order to build context where she does not have specific sources, Swarns draws on famous slave narratives to tell her story. She probably relies a little too much on Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave.”

A central theme, which Swarns might have probed even more, is Catholicism itself. The Mahoney family remained Catholic over time, while others, especially in Louisiana, abandoned the church. In a recent opinion piece in The Times, Swarns observed that her connection to the church had grown only stronger through the process of working on this harrowing story. But other than showing how the Jesuits attended to their flocks of faithful, and mentioning rosaries, hymns, prayers and other rituals, just what it is about Catholicism that is at stake in this book seems unrealized.

Here and there a historical misstep occurs, though these should not affect the book’s impact in academia and beyond. For example, Europeans did little “seizing” of “territory” as they moved into West Africa trading for slaves. Swarns reminds us of the Jesuits’ hypocrisy more than necessary; the entire book embodies that fact. Still, she nicely demonstrates the role of the Vatican in at times rejecting and then approving the sales of slaves in Maryland. The church leadership’s performance in this history was essentially feckless.

What comes through most effectively is the sorrow and the determination to survive of the enslaved people whom Swarns brings to light through her sleuthing and resonant prose. (Of Ann Joice, Swarns writes, “She would have no wealth, no land and no savings to leave her family, but she still had her story. … The story would be her legacy.”) Swarns also underscores the importance of Georgetown’s ongoing efforts at serious reparations for the deeds of its early leaders. The university has identified more than 6,000 descendants of the original 272, offered them formal “legacy” status for admission, sought atonement through a highly publicized apology and created a fund that would dedicate $400,000 a year to community projects, including support for health clinics and schools, likely to benefit descendants. Leaders of the Jesuit conference of priests have also vowed to establish a $100 million trust to benefit descendants and promote racial reconciliation.

No single work of history can remedy the vexing issue of repair for slavery in America, but “The 272” advances the conversation and challenges the collective conscience; without knowing this history in its complexity we are left with only raw, uncharted memory.

David W. Blight is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” and the forthcoming “Yale and Slavery: A History.”

THE 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church | By Rachel L. Swarns | Illustrated | 327 pp. | Random House | $28

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