Of the many things that slaves were denied during the height of the slave trade, reading and writing formed a sizable part of it. The reasons might be obvious of the fact that the knowledge of reading and writing would have armed the slaves in fighting the white authorities.
Much later, a few selected slaves began receiving training in reading and writing. One of the schools that did this was the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, a prestigious Roman Catholic girls’ school in Washington, D.C. founded in 1799.
The founding nuns of the school were once believed to have allowed slaves to attend classes and be taught to read, giving the school its admirable reputation.
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The sisters, who established the elite academy in Washington, D.C., also ran “a Saturday school, free to any young girl who wished to learn — including slaves, at a time when public schools were almost nonexistent and teaching slaves to read was illegal,” according to an official history posted for several years on the school’s website.
However, when a newly hired school archivist and historian, Dr. Susan Nalezyty, started digging into the convent’s records a few years ago, she found that there was no evidence that the nuns had taught enslaved children to read or write.
Instead, she found records that documented a darker side of the order’s history, contradicting that legend. It was a most revealing detail, telling of a different story: the nuns actually sold slaves!
In the 1820s, just a few months after the economic collapse spurred on by the Panic of 1819 in the United States of America, debts began piling up for Mother Agnes Brent, superior of the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington. This had become even more pressing because the convent had just broken ground on a new chapel, making it a poor timing for the project.
There was the need to fund the chapel’s construction and Brent needed money, and fast. And then came an unexpected boon: relatives of two sisters offered four slaves (two adults and two children) as a “gift” to Georgetown Visitation because they were spare slaves.
As detailed in the 65-page report she compiled, Nalezzyty found that the Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved men, women and children from a year after its founding until 1862, when the federal government made slavery illegal in the District.
Seeing an opportunity to make money, the nuns began to sell dozens of slaves in order to pay debts and to help finance the expansion of their school as well as to aid in the construction of the new chapel.
As Mother Agnes Brent, the convent’s superior, wrote in an 1821 approval she gave on the sale of a couple and their two young children: “Nothing else to do than to dispose of the family of Negroes.”
Of the people sold, was an enslaved woman who was just days away from giving birth to her third child.
The evil of slavery as it existed during those years at Georgetown Visitation can be seen in the report’s listing of the 107 enslaved people connected to the school and convent, including “Prudence: In 1822, sold by the Convent (with her child) for $150.”
“It’s hard history to read, and that’s the reality of it,” Caroline Handorf, the director of communications for Georgetown Visitation, told The Washington Post. “But you can’t move forward unless you understand where you’re coming from.”
There have been several stories of the involvements of nuns in the slave trade and how many of them contributed largely to the sale of slaves, without almost no empathy at all. They did these in order to help build their schools and their churches.
For generations, enslaved people have been largely left out of the origin story traditionally told about the Catholic Church. But slavery also helped to fuel the growth of many contemporary institutions, including some churches and religious organizations.
Historians say that nearly all of the orders of Catholic sisters established by the late 1820s owned slaves. Today, many Catholic sisters are outspoken champions of social justice as a number of Catholic churches and societies have come out to apologize for their roles in slavery as well to make amends for slaveholding.