The origin story of the Catholic Church in the United States includes a dependency on slave labor and sales to sustain itself and build its institutions. In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, the Society of Jesuits, sold 272 enslaved people to save Georgetown University, their largest mission project and the first Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. The sale included the separation of children from parents, a common feature of the slave trade. In the groundbreaking new book The 272 (2023), Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover a harrowing history. In a recent article about the 1838 sale, she shares how witnesses “described the terrors of enslavement: children torn from their parents, brothers from their sisters, and desperate people forced to board slave ships that sailed to Louisiana. It was one of the largest documented slave sales of the time, and it shattered entire families.”
During this webinar, participants explored the role of the Catholic Church in separating children from families during slavery in the United States. Given the broad historic and geographic scope of this topic, the conversation focused on the history of Georgetown University and neighboring areas. How has this history been felt and experienced by descendants of those who were separated as a result of the 1838 sale? How did the Catholic Church justify child-family separation at the time? How are the Catholic Church and Georgetown University reckoning with this history now? How has Catholic theology and social thought changed over time, particularly in relation to the care and protection of children and families?
The forum on Faith and the Family: Propagating and Preventing Child-Family Separation across Time and Context is convened by Catholic Relief Services and Georgetown University’s Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, in coordination with the Changing the Way We Care initiative and strategic partners. This webinar was co-sponsored by the Georgetown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies.
English, French, and Spanish interpretation are available.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robert and Talbot Trudeau.