Today, Georgetown dedicated Anne Marie Becraft Hall in recognition of a trailblazing free black woman who devoted her life to the education of African-Americans during the 19th century. The building was originally named McSherry Hall after former Georgetown President Fr. William McSherry, S.J., who helped organize the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 to raise funds for the university.
The renaming of the building is an important step in Georgetown’s journey to make reparations for its legacy of slavery. It also marks the first time Georgetown has dedicated a building to a woman of color, one who made a positive imprint on history in her own right.
Anne Marie, also called Maria, was a free black woman known for her “uncommon intelligence,” according to the American Journal of Education. Born in 1805, Becraft was privately educated in Washington, D.C. At the young age of 15, she opened a school for girls on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown and operated it with “the greatest assiduity and with uniform success.”
Seven years later, Becraft had so impressed the pastor of Holy Trinity Church, near the Georgetown campus, that he helped her open a larger boarding and day school for girls of color. It was the first official Catholic school open to African-Americans in the nation, according to newspaper accounts. In “The Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery,” by Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute — now university — recognizes Becraft for her accomplishments as “the head of the first seminary for coloured girls.”
Becraft ran the school with great dedication and eventually named one of the girls she had trained to be her successor. She went on to teach in Baltimore at the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest active Catholic sisterhood in the Americas established by women of African descent. Becraft was being considered as its future Mother Superior before her life was cut short at the age of 28.
Becraft’s positive impact on her community as an educator and a religious woman is impressive by any measure. Her achievements are even more profound when one considers the prejudice she must have encountered as a black woman of her time. She remained surrounded by the institution of slavery in Washington, D.C. Indeed, her neighbor, Georgetown University, was profiting from slavery and would make its infamous sale of 272 slaves only five years after her death.
By honoring Becraft, Georgetown not only attempts to address the injustice of slavery on its own campus but at the same time recognizes an extraordinary black woman who understood the importance of educating girls even during the dark days of slavery.
With the dedication of Anne Marie Becraft Hall, Georgetown sets another precedent: Becraft is the first woman to be recognized by name on a building on the main campus for her own singular accomplishments.
It has not been uncommon for women of accomplishment to go unrecognized in history. “Hidden Figures” recently portrayed the contributions of previously unheralded black female mathematicians who helped to propel U.S. leadership in space.
With Georgetown’s action, Becraft’s role in history is no longer hidden.
Melanne Verveer is the Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security and the former US Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues.