In 1838, a group of America's most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In this groundbreaking account, journalist, author, and professor Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover the harrowing origin story of the Catholic Church in the United States.
Through the saga of the Mahoney family, Swarns illustrates how the Church relied on slave labor and slave sales to sustain its operations and to help finance its expansion. The story begins with Ann Joice, a free Black woman and the matriarch of the Mahoney family. Joice sailed to Maryland in the late 1600s as an indentured servant, but her contract was burned and her freedom stolen. Her descendants, who were enslaved by Jesuit priests, passed down the story of that broken promise for centuries. One of those descendants, Harry Mahoney, saved lives and the church's money in the War of 1812, but his children, including Louisa and Anna, were put up for sale in 1838. One daughter managed to escape. The other was sold and shipped to Louisiana. Their descendants would remain apart until Rachel Swarns's reporting in The New York Times finally reunited them. They would go on to join other GU272 descendants who pressed Georgetown and the Catholic Church to make amends, prodding the institutions to break new ground in the movement for reparations and reconciliation in America.
Swarns's journalism has already started a national conversation about universities with ties to slavery. The 272 tells a bigger story, demonstrating how slavery fueled the growth of the Catholic Church in America and bringing to light the enslaved people whose forced labor helped to build the largest religious denomination in the nation.
Rachel L. Swarns is a journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at New York University, who writes about race and race relations as a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her articles about Georgetown University’s roots in slavery touched off a national conversation about American universities and their ties to this painful period of history. Her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the Biographers International Organization, the MacDowell artist residency program and others. As a correspondent for the Times, Swarns reported from Russia, Cuba, Guatemala and southern Africa and covered immigration, presidential politics and Michelle Obama and her role in the Obama White House. As a senior writer for the paper, she helped to lead and innovate on coverage of issues of race and ethnicity. In 2018, she joined NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she focuses on American slavery and its contemporary legacies. She is the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and a co-author of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives, published by Black Dog & Leventhal. In 2023, she was elected to the Society of American Historians.
Swarns will be in conversation with Michel Martin, a host of Morning Edition. Previously, she was the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she drew on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member stations. She has spent more than 25 years as a journalist — first in print with major newspapers and then in television. Martin has been honored by numerous organizations, including the Candace Award for Communications from The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Joan Barone Award for Excellence in Washington-based National Affairs/Public Policy Broadcasting from the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association and a 2002 Silver Gavel Award, given by the American Bar Association. Along with her Emmy award, she received three additional Emmy nominations, including one with WNYC's Robert Krulwich, at the time an ABC contributor as well, for an ABC News program examining children's racial attitudes. In 2019, Martin was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in journalism. She is the 2021 recipient of PMJA's 2021 Leo C. Lee Award.