Classics Department Translates Letter on Sale of 272 Slaves

Classics Department Translates Letter on Sale of 272 Slaves


A group of around 20 students and faculty from the Classics Department recently finished an English translation of an 1836 Latin letter from the Society of Jesus headquarters in Rome. The translation revealed that the university did not comply with the Jesuits’ provisions for the sale of 272 slaves that saved Georgetown from bankruptcy in 1838.

The then-Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Jan Roothaan, addressed the letter to the Provincial Father at Georgetown, William McSherry. Within it, Roothaan outlined a set of stipulations for the sale of the slaves. He wrote that the university should not use the funds from the sale to pay off their debt and that the slaves should be assisted in their continued practice of Catholicism. The university did not follow either of Roothaan’s demands.

What struck me when reading it … was Roothaan’s unhappiness about this affair,” Josiah Osgood, a Classics professor involved in the project, wrote in an email to the Voice.

The letter, translated between Feb. 10 and March 24, underwent a painstaking translation process involving around a dozen undergraduate students, along with handwriting experts, Annee Lyons (COL ‘18), a student involved in the translation, said. Their work on this letter is a part of the university’s broader movement to address its history with slavery.

The letter has added to the knowledge surrounding the 1838 sale, which became a focal point of the national conversation on the history of slavery at colleges and universities in 2015. University President John DeGioia responded to this national attention by creating the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation and later engaging in dialogue with the descendants of slaves that Georgetown sold, notably announcing preferential admissions to descendants. The university has looked to continue this reconciliation through original research.

The Georgetown Slavery Archive, a recommendation of the working group, launched last year and presently hosts 85 materials relating to the 1838 sale of slaves, including advertisements, financial statements, and speeches. It also contains photos of Frank Campbell, a slave sold by the university that the New York Times highlighted in early March.

The Georgetown Slavery Archive added the original letter with its translation to its digital collections on March 28. Adam Rothman, a principal researcher for the archive and history professor, was responsible for bringing the Latin letter to the attention of the Classics department.

“[The department’s] participation shows how faculty and students can contribute to Georgetown’s Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation effort from whatever field of knowledge they happen to be devoted to,” Rothman wrote in an email to the Voice.

Lyons and Rothman said that more work remains for both the Slavery Archive and the university as a whole. “I hope it serves as an inspiration and model for faculty and students in other departments and programs to find creative and appropriate ways to participate,” Rothman wrote.

The university will hold a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope on April 18, at which time Freedom and Remembrance Halls will be formally renamed as Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, respectively. Before November 2015, the halls were named for Jesuits involved in the sale, and were changed in response to student protests. Hawkins was the first slave listed in the 1838 sale and Becraft was a woman of color who began a school for girls in Georgetown during the early 1800s.

Osgood and Lyons also plan to continue translating additional letters from Latin to English. Osgood said the university still has a large collection of untranslated letters sent among the Jesuits and to Rome.

“What was incredible, as a Classics student, was practically applying the years I’ve studied Latin,” Lyons said. “It’d be so interesting to see what secrets are still left in those letters that haven’t been translated yet.”

For Danny O’Sullivan (COL ‘20), another student involved, Classics provides the unique ability to contend with Georgetown’s past and shape university policy moving forward.

“I wasn’t ready for the silence that came after we first read through the Latin,” O’Sullivan wrote in an email to the Voice. “It wasn’t the usual silence that precedes an attempt to put Latin thoughts into English words. It was the silence that comes when emotions rob you of speech. Translating is a challenge. Translating in honor of 272 people and their descendants … is a responsibility beyond words.”

Image Credits: Keeho Kang

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Katya Schwenk Katya is an assistant news editor at The Georgetown Voice.

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