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

by Rachel L. Swarns

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912302,251 (4.5)2
In 1838, a group of America's most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In this account, Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover 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.… (more)
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Eight years ago, in April 2016, New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns received a forwarded email from an alum of Georgetown University, the first college established by the Catholic Jesuit order in America. The author of the email had discovered that not only had the order owned five Maryland plantations where enslaved people toiled, but in 1838, 272 of them had been sold to keep the university from becoming insolvent.

The astounding product of seven years of research, Rachel’s history book, The 272, is the subject of the April Book Stew episode, hosted by Eileen MacDougall.

The interview covers the rationalizations used by the Jesuit fathers, who strove to fulfill the spiritual needs of the plantation workers, while ignoring the impact of slavery on their bodies and the horrifying act of splitting up their families.

Links: YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/bookstew124-yt
Soundcloud podcast: http://tinyurl.com/bookstew124-sc ( )
  froxgirl | Mar 30, 2024 |
The 272 recounts the story of the Mahoneys, an extended family of enslaved and later free Black Americans whose forced labour and eventual sale south to Louisiana were used to fund the construction and expansion of Georgetown University. Rachel Swarns' account of how the Jesuit Order abused generations of people, and justified that abuse to themselves through a kind of pious, racialising paternalism, is an engrossing if often queasy and infuriating read. It's the rare book where you feel like the author didn't need to call out church hypocrisy as much as she did, just because it's so evident on the page.

There were a couple of places where I thought that Swarns' analysis could have dived deeper—either through following the lives of the post-Reconstruction descendants of the Mahoneys, or through contextualising the religious history of these events more—and a couple of points where there are minor historical errors. (Admittedly I'm far more familiar with European forms of Catholicism, but e.g. unless the reforms of Vatican II were anticipated in 19th-century America, Mass was celebrated in Latin, not in the vernacular.)

However, these are reservations which ultimately do not detract from the power and importance of this work, and anyway no one book could be expected to encompass every aspect of this history: of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits, there are at least 6,000 known living descendants today. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote siriaeve | Mar 30, 2024 |
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In 1838, a group of America's most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In this account, Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover 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.

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