Loyola Alum Examines the Jesuits’ Role as Slaveholders

Mikayla Ciesil | The PHOENIX

As part of Black History Month, Loyola hosted alum Dr. Thomas Murphy, S.J., of Seattle University, who spoke to Loyola students and faculty members about the history of Jesuit slaveholders.

Murphy is the author of “Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland” and gave a lecture titled “The Jesuit Choice: Religious Freedom Before Ecumenism and Slave Emancipation” at Coffey Hall in the McCormick Lounge on the afternoon of Feb. 9.

Murphy, who earned his master’s degree in philosophy from Loyola in 1991, discussed the history of Jesuit slaveholders and its implications. He began the lecture by discussing the idea that some Jesuits in early America were concerned with losing the religious freedom they enjoyed in America for supporting abolitionism.

The Jesuits “looked at the issue of abolitionism and related it to nativism,” which was a viewpoint that could have jeopardized Catholic immigration rights, according to Murphy. The Jesuits saw slave and plantation ownership as an assertion of their status as American citizens securing their religious rights.

Many slaves were gifts to Jesuits, and Murphy highlighted the clear distinction the Jesuits saw between slave trade and slave transaction, which was used as a tool for justification of slaveholding.

Murphy also talked about Georgetown University, which was founded by Jesuits in Maryland in 1789. At its founding, the university did not charge students for tuition, which placed the burden on Jesuit-run plantations to earn enough to fund the institution.

The emancipation of Jesuit-owned slaves was a process that took about 20 years. Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., persuaded Jesuit leaders in Rome to let him sell the slaves and Jesuit-owned land and use some of the money to invest in Georgetown University, despite his superiors’ instructions not to, according to Murphy. In 1838, the sale of 272 slaves was documented, but the land continued to be operated by tenant farmers.

Murphy stressed that there was “resistance on the part of the Jesuit slaves,” but pointed out that Jesuits “did believe that [slaves] were worthy of Christianity” and passed on their faith to slaves, unlike other Christian denominations at the time.

Murphy referenced Georgetown’s acknowledgement of the university’s ties to slavery and a New York Times series of interviews with descendants of Jesuit-owned slaves for audience members to further their understanding of Jesuit slaveholding.

The event drew a crowd of about 60 students and community members, and Murphy opened the floor to questions for discussion at the end of the lecture.

Senior finance major Kyle Kauss said he was surprised by the Jesuits’ history.

“I was surprised that a religious order was so deeply affiliated with slavery,” said the 22-year-old.

First-year history major Kristin Morrison, 18, said she was glad Loyola hosted the event.

“I think it’s important that the Jesuits are acknowledging their own history behind [slaveholding],” said the history and political science double major.

Murphy said it’s important to discuss the history of Jesuit slaveholders because “we have to be honest about our past.” Murphy stressed the importance in keeping the memory of Jesuit-owned slaves alive.

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