Righting History

Originally published on genealogyatheart.blogspot.com on 26 June 2014

I’ve been following the interesting series of articles published by the New York Times and Washington Post regarding Georgetown University’s history of selling slaves to keep the school financially solvent.

Finding records in the old south is often difficult but for the former enslaved, it is even more so.  The links to the three articles below provide helpful hints on how to identify the paper trail:

272 Slaves were Sold to Save Georgetown.  What Does it Owe Their Descendants?

A Million Questions From Descendants of Slaves Sold to Aid Georgetown

Georgetown’s priests sold her Catholic ancestors.  Then she found out in an unexpected way.

Of course, the articles were not written to help newbie genealogists learn how to discover records of enslaved individuals.  Besides discussing reparations, they highlight the emotions that families experience when a discovery of unsavory findings from the past is brought to light and the journey the families face as they move forward with the knowledge gained.  As I’ve previously written, the process is similar to how one deals with grief and loss in the present.

The Georgetown slave story, however, adds another layer of acceptance; that of reconciliation with one’s religious convictions.  From a social science perspective, I find it fascinating how the descendants are processing the information that their current religion’s forefathers treated their kin, especially knowing that the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.

I applaud the formation of the Georgetown Memory Foundation which as part of its mission, is to memorialize the event.  Remembering history is a wonderful way to make it right.

While the Georgetown University administration tries to identify ways to right a wrong they have overlooked another story from their past.  Father Patrick Francis Healy was the university’s 29th president tasked with its growth shortly after the Civil War.  He was quite successful and much beloved.  Fr. Healy’s ancestry makes his tenure even more remarkable then his legacy.  Born in Georgia to an Irish Roman Catholic father and a mulatto slave owned by his grandfather, Patrick Francis and his siblings were born into slavery.  Healy’s parents wanted their children to be educated which was illegal since they were slaves.  The family sent Patrick to a Quaker school in the north, however, he faced discrimination not for being a mulatto but for being Irish Catholic.  During this time, his grandfather and father continued to own slaves, another strike held against him by the Quaker school.  Patrick transferred to a Jesuit owned school in Massachusetts.  He joined the priesthood and went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at a Catholic university in Belgium. He achieved this during the time his mother remained enslaved.

The interaction of race, creed and national origin have complicated our country’s history and continues to do so today.  As genealogists, it is wise for us to remember the complexities as we help those who have newly discovered information gain acceptance.