“An absolutely essential addition to the history of the Catholic Church, whose involvement in New World slavery sustained the Church and, thereby, helped to entrench enslavement in American society.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello and On Juneteenth
New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
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, but 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 an even bigger story, not only demonstrating how slavery fueled the growth of the American Catholic Church but also shining a light on the enslaved people whose forced labor helped to build the largest religious denomination in the nation.
About the Author
Rachel L. Swarns is a journalism professor at New York University and a contributing writer for The New York Times. She is the author of American Tapestry and a co-author of Unseen. Her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Biographers International Organization, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the MacDowell artist residency program, and others.
“No single work of history can remedy the vexing issue of repair for slavery in America, but The 272 advances the conversation and challenges the collective conscience; without knowing this history in its complexity we are left with only raw, uncharted memory.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant blend of history and journalism, this book unearths the story of the enslaved people whose labor benefited the Catholic Church—and what happened when their descendants sought answers.”—People
“Swarns is a gifted writer and storyteller. But The 272 succeeds not only in its telling of a tragic story. [She] centers the experiences of enslaved people owned by the Jesuits for nearly two centuries who remained largely unnamed and unknown until now.”—The Washington Post
“Rachel L. Swarns’s The 272 tells the poignant story of the Black families at the heart of early Catholic America. Owned and sold by Jesuit priests, these families fought to hold on to body and soul across generations. Through dogged research and with great insight, Swarns has stitched together a history once torn apart by slavery, distance, and time.”—Adam Rothman, PhD, director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies
“The 272 is revealing about old sins in the Catholic Church and conclusive at tying American higher education to slavery, but the wonderful part is that Swarns reveals and persuades by telling the story of one Black family across the 1800s—people whose names you learn and lives you follow for three generations, individuals who find their way through the tunnel of enslavement and come out whole.”—Edward Ball, National Book Award–winning author of Slaves in the Family and Life of a Klansman
“Outstanding, exceptional reporting . . . an incredible project of research, deciphering, and storytelling, and a devastating indictment not only of Georgetown but also of the entire Catholic Church.”—Steven Hahn, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Nation Under Our Feet and A Nation Without Borders
“This is a deeply researched and passionately told story that speaks to our ongoing need to confront the legacy of America’s original sin of slavery.”—James M. O’Toole, author of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America
“Immersive . . . [A] searing investigation into the Catholic Church’s deep involvement in American slavery, which has fueled debates at Georgetown and other colleges and universities . . . A powerful reminder of how firmly the roots of slavery are planted in America’s soil.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Lively and scrupulously documented, the book brings to light a previously unknown piece of the history of slavery in the U.S.’’—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)