Random House, 352 pages | Published June 13, 2023
The 272 is another book ripe for discussion, making it an ideal book club read. Catholic journalist Rachel Swarns digs deep into the shocking story of Georgetown University’s sale of enslaved persons. Despite their promises not to separate families, in 1838 Jesuit priests sold 272 enslaved people for $3.3 million (in today’s dollars) to fund the struggling university.
Swarns tells the story in painstaking detail, naming and reclaiming the stories of those who lived it, like sisters Louisa and Anna Mahoney (one escaped and one was sold). The descendants of the 272 often remained devoted Catholics. One, Mary Bennett, even became a nun. I would have preferred that Swarns go deeper into the modern implications and ongoing discussions within the Georgetown administration and descendant groups (Swarns covered this in the New York Times as early as 2016, and I recommend reading these articles alongside her book).
But first, Swarns makes clear that there was nothing benign about the sale of the children, women and men — a group that included a 2-month-old baby and teenage boy. Documentation shows that families begged not to be separated and were dragged to waiting ships. The Jesuits reassured themselves that all would be well — after all, the enslaved people would have access to Catholic worship and priests in their new locations.
As upper Southern states depleted their soil through tobacco farming, slaveowners sold people to the brutal plantations of the Deep South (a million enslaved people between 1800-1860 alone — twice the number of people shipped to North America in the transatlantic slave trade). Swarns argues that Georgetown’s financial struggles were due mostly to the mismanagement of its leaders, who instead blamed the enslaved workers.
The 272 overflows with discussion starters: What does an institution owe the descendants of those it has harmed (and whose free labor laid its foundation)? What does restorative justice look like, and are apologies even meaningful without actions? Letters reveal the priests’ biblical and theological justifications — can we learn from these assumptions and “do better” in our own time? Even now, many of the descendants are left out of the conversation — who is seated at our decision-making tables, and do we continue to exclude those who lack power? I’d love to have a seat at the table as rich discussion unfolds in your church’s book discussion group!
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