If you make your way up to Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue and climb toward the ridge, you will see a tree stump off to your left, set back 20 yards from the path. Peering at several small gravestones closely, you can barely make out the wind- and rain-softened etchings of the name “Becraft.”
I found myself there in April, a day after the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation recommened the name of Remembrance Hall — formerly McSherry Hall — be changed to Anne Marie Becraft Hall. After scouring the yard, I finally found these graves of Anne Marie’s family. My thoughts turned to what it must have been like for her to stand there — a free young woman of color, in a cemetery divided, much like the city of the living was.
Turning around, after praying there for her deceased loved ones, Anne Marie would have walked down High Street, as it was known then, into Georgetown. Her path would have taken her among people of color — some free, others enslaved — as well as white people, many of whom were slave owners. She would have waved at the young black girls whom she was educating, while other faces would have stared at her with disapproval. At Holy Trinity Parish, she found support from a Jesuit pastor in the founding of her school. Yet at Georgetown, she saw Jesuits and students regularly renting and using enslaved people to build and run the school.
For me, Anne Marie’s story brings to life the deeply troubling and contradictory history we have been exploring as a community. It confronts me with the way this neighborhood and this nation lived with conflicting impulses, proclaiming high educational and religious ideals while depriving many of their rights and dignity.
Somehow Anne Marie carried those contradictions inside her, yet she found a way to face and challenge them. Her efforts were exterior and interior. Exteriorly, she took up action, founding a school and forming a generation of educated black girls in a race-riven city. Interiorly, she embarked on a journey with God, one that affirmed her place and purpose in the world. This experience was so profound that it led her to enter the first order of Roman Catholic sisters founded by women of African descent.
Upon reflection, Anne Marie points the way for us to take practical actions to address the contradictions of our day, many of which are rooted in our history of slaveholding and racial division. These cannot be abstract; they need to be concrete, just as solid as that schoolhouse of hers, and they must touch real lives.
But just as importantly, she urges us toward facing our own contradictions, both as individuals and as a society. This involves a journey of spirit. It invites us to go inward, into a space where we are most vulnerable and aware of our failings, but also where we encounter our most universally uplifting impulses and hopes.Nurtured in prayer and meditation and silence, it is where we find our truest selves, and where we are inspired to work for solidarity and justice. It is here our true vocation can be found, a vocation that will sustain us on the long road to reconciliation that our community and nation must walk.
Anne Marie’s school was small, a tiny redoubt challenging the social norms of race and gender. Almost hidden here in our neighborhood, it had few students and drew little attention. But now, if we open ourselves up to her story — and to the larger story of Georgetown and our nation — we can all be her students.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor of government and the School of Foreign Service, and currently serves as director of the center for Latin American studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears every other Friday.