In 2015, Montclair resident Rachel Swarns came across a painful history. That fall, students at Georgetown University protested to rename campus buildings that honored two past presidents. The two men – the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry – were involved in selling 272 enslaved men, women and children in 1838 to save a Catholic institution of higher education, which later ended up becoming Georgetown University.
Originally, the history behind the protests was presented to a colleague of Swarns by Richard Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus and CEO of a technology company. He was interested in what happened to the 272 enslaved people that were responsible for the continued existence of Georgetown University.
“He’s like, ‘Okay, there are these protests, name changes of buildings, but what about the people like what happened to them?’” said Swarns, an author, journalist and professor.
After reaching out to a faculty member about the families of the enslaved people, Cellini was told that they were all deceased. This answer was hard to believe for Cellini, “He’s like, ‘Nearly 300 people and all of them died? No descendents or nothing?’” Swarns said.
Originally, Cellini emailed one of Swarns fellow reporters at The New York Times to track down the families of those enslaved. The reporter then emailed the information to Swarns, who saw this project as the perfect opportunity to continue researching the time period after releasing her book “American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama.”
“I could see immediately that this would be kind of the next step for the work that I wanted to do, which was to explore how slavery shaped an elite American institution,” Swarns said. “And that’s how I got started.”
This work started with a few articles in which Swarns introduced the history behind Georgetown’s painful past and their plans to rectify it. Eventually, as Swarns started to research she realized the heavy history that trickles down into the present couldn’t be contained by a few thousand words.
On June 19, Swarns released her third book, “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church.”
In the book, Swarns maps out the ins and outs of the conditions of the enslaved people by centering the book on Ann Joice, a free black woman who was formerly enslaved and her family, the Mahoneys.
“Writing about enslaved people is not easy,” Swarns said. “First of all, because by law and by practice they’re barred from learning to read, or write. So you don’t have the kinds of materials that you would rely on for the 1800s, like, letters and journals and diaries.”
Swarns didn’t have the luxury of finding portraits in an old schoolbook or wedding photos. Instead, she filed through tax and property records in which enslaved people were listed next to farm animals because they were considered property and not people.
Swarns came across a multitude of families who deserved to have their stories and history highlighted but ultimately chose the Mahoney family because of the amount of information she found.
“As a writer and a researcher, it’s what story can you bring to light, most compellingly and most richly?” she said. “And that all comes down to the kind of records and what you can weave together.”
As a journalist, Swarns is used to answering any questions that her readers may have. When it comes to writing about enslaved people this was the first time that Swarns realized that despite all her efforts there may be some questions left unanswered.
“Sometimes you realize that actually the absence of information is part of the story,” the author said. “Part of the story is that enslaved people were treated as property. Part of the story is that their milestones and family accomplishments and things like that weren’t recorded by newspapers, part of that is the marginalization of Black people.”
Swarns, who is Catholic, felt the weight of the stories of enslaved people clashing with the faith that she and so many others turn to for comfort. She recalled being “astounded” as she was writing the book.
“I’m researching this and I’m reading these records, and this very difficult history and at the same time I’m going to Mass,” she said.
Despite this realization, Swarns said she was inspired as she delved deeper into the history of the enslaved people and their families.
“A lot of members of the Mahoney family stayed in the church,” she said. “And not only did they stay, but they became lay leaders, some of them religious leaders, and they decided to reshape the church into one that had a mission of being a universal church.”
Since starting her research, Swarns has not only captured a history that was long covered up but also connected families through her work. When she wrote the first article in 2016, only a handful of descendants had been identified. Now, Swarns said, at least 6,000 descendants have been identified and are connecting with one another after being torn apart due to the impact of slavery more than 200 years ago.
“I never imagined this and that’s really meaningful,” Swarns said. “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church” is available for purchase at Watchung Booksellers and online.