Two weeks ago, the roughly 1,580 students comprising the Class of 2019 arrived on campus. Beginning with New Student Orientation and trailing into the first months of their time on campus, these thousand and a half eager freshmen will begin to learn the geography of our collective home. They will notice, no doubt, the canal, tracing the Potomac to the edge of the waterfront, where they’ll find a park and a “harbor.” They’ll note, perhaps with surprise, the presence of a graveyard at the heart of our campus, or the trolley tracks still notched into the cobblestone streets. And these freshmen, like all of us, will come face to face with Mulledy Hall: imposing, stately and recently refurbished.
About a week before classes began, an email from University President John J. DeGioia reintroduced Mulledy Hall — one half of the Former Jesuit Residence — to all of us. Writing with reference to the tumult pouring out of Ferguson Mo, Staten Island and elsewhere, DeGioia recognized the history behind Mulledy Hall. It was named for Thomas F. Mulledy, who twice served as president of Georgetown. In 1838, Mulledy sold 272 slaves, owned by the Maryland Jesuits, south to a future governor of Louisiana. He not only guaranteed their continued enslavement but set off a chain of events that separated families and destroyed lives.
Although this history is documented, the information contained in that email came as a surprise to many students. Why, they wondered, had such a name stood for so long? With students moving into the building, some have expressed a frustration that is almost achingly obvious: no student should have to occupy a building named in honor of someone who enslaved his ancestors.
It is troubling how many people were caught off guard by DeGioia’s email. Many had never heard of Mulledy Hall. Until this year, it stood as a hulking red shell of a building. Passers-by admired its elaborate balconies but largely paid the structure little mind. When a message from the president’s office labeled “A Message Regarding Mulledy Hall” appeared in our inboxes, many of us felt like we were being introduced to the site and its history for the first time.
Mulledy isn’t the only site to which Georgetown deserves a new introduction. Our campus environment is suffused with the legacy of slavery.
Take the waterfront and canal, for example. The canal, now a nice place for a light lunch or a stroll, exists because Georgetown was historically the last navigable site on the Potomac for seafaring vessels. The canal cuts deep into Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, from which it used to ferry trade goods destined for the interior or for the port of Georgetown. Like most significant ports at the time, Georgetown was a slave hub. The community in Georgetown included hundreds of slaves and free blacks alike. In fact, the Georgetown of Thomas Mulledy’s day was much blacker than the neighborhood we know today.
There’s more. Roughly at the intersection of P Street and Wisconsin Avenue (think Thomas Sweet) a slave market took place. And a few dozen miles closer to the coast of Maryland, the Jesuits maintained vast plantations that relied on slave labor to support Jesuit education endeavors. Slavery built and supported Georgetown — all of it. Not just Mulledy Hall.
The signs are on campus too. Several slaves, although likely not many, worked on Georgetown’s campus. Some of them are buried here. In 1821, a slave named Rachel, who worked in the “College Wash House,” was buried in the Old College Ground — a cemetery that existed roughly where the Northeast Triangle is now being built. More slaves were likely buried in the area between Yates Field House and the Georgetown University Observatory, a garden now.
Slaveholding culture also infiltrated our campus. Georgetown, after all, was a southern institution. As many as one in five of our students during the first half of the 19th century were the children of planters. In the Civil War, our graduates overwhelmingly enlisted to fight for the Confederacy. They even participated in the Lincoln assassination, helping earn Georgetown the moniker “alma mater of the Confederacy.” When Georgetown adopted Blue and Gray as its colors, it was as much out of necessity as magnanimity.
When we wander our campus, we are usually too self-assured in the present to interrogate Georgetown’s sights and emblems. We often discuss the legacy of racial intolerance in the United States as if it is happening elsewhere. Ferguson, after all, is far away; it can be murky and fraught.
We would do better to take a lesson from the Class of 2019. Just as they introduce themselves to our campus for the first time, we should take this semester to reintroduce ourselves to our environment and its troubled history. If the dialogue on race DeGioia calls for is to be a success, Georgetown will need to come face to face with its history — now hidden, squirreled away in plain sight.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the Scool of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday