Originally published in The Hoya, August 8, 2018
This article is part of series in a special project supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and SaxaFund. Read more here: http://www.thehoya.com/category/features/tracingthe272/.
As Georgetown University was breaking ground on the construction of its newest residence hall in December 2014, workers unearthed a fragment of the school’s hidden history: a human thighbone.
The publicly undisclosed discovery of human remains has raised questions about the level of care the university took to memorialize the site and publicize the finding, as it was found in a location known to have been used as a segregated graveyard — the final resting place for several Georgetown slaves and the local Catholic community between 1818 and 1833.
The crew of the Gilbane Building Company — Georgetown’s construction contractor — had already known that the discovery of human remains would be a possibility. The site of Arrupe Hall in Georgetown’s Northeast Triangle was near the College Ground, a campus graveyard used by the Holy Trinity Church as a burial ground for parishioners as well as slaves and free blacks in the Georgetown neighborhood.
The College Ground was long gone by the time construction on the residence hall began, having been removed in 1953 to make room for the university’s expansion near what is now the Reiss Science Building. But only a fraction of the bodies buried in the area were recovered; out of the over 900 people buried at the College Ground, only about 50 were discovered and transferred to Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1953, according to local historian Carlton Fletcher.
Construction continued under the supervision of archaeological firm AECOM, although no other human remains were found at the site, according to a university spokesperson. Later, AECOM conducted an analysis on the femur, concluding that the bone belonged to a male of indeterminate ancestry between the ages of 35 and 49 and that it may have been displaced during the transfer of remains from the College Ground.
Less than two years later, the $46 million, newly-constructed Pedro Arrupe, S.J. Hall began housing upperclassmen for the fall 2016 semester. Today, many of the students who study in the Reiss Science Building, sleep in Arrupe Hall, or stroll through the brick walkways on the northeast side of campus are unaware that human bodies were once interred beneath their feet.
In much of the history of Washington, D.C., the redevelopment of cemeteries was viewed as the inevitable price of growth — when a property’s expansion began to encroach on burial grounds, bodies were often exhumed and relocated elsewhere.
“Cemeteries were moved — there was a big spate of doing this between the 1890s and 1950, when it was just considered fairly normal,” Fletcher said in an interview with The Hoya. “The pendulum was very much on the side of progress and indifference.”
According to D.C. city archaeologist Ruth Trocolli, this process was almost always imperfect.
“When I say a cemetery is ‘moved,’ I’m putting it in air quotes,” Trocolli said in an interview with The Hoya. “Moving a cemetery, even in the recent past, in the 1950s and 1960s, is almost impossible — to clear every grave completely, find every grave, to get all human remains out of it, to not leave any parts behind. And that is the sad and true reality.”
But for those whose ancestors were enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits and sold to benefit Georgetown College, this treatment of burial sites — along with the lack of memorialization around these spaces — is a prime example of their ancestors’ contributions going unmarked and unremembered.
Sandra Green Thomas, mother of two Georgetown students and a descendant of the 272 slaves sold to Louisiana in 1838 to save the financially struggling college, said the treatment of these burial sites follows the pattern of institutions sacrificing human dignity for profit.
“The people in these burial sites, especially the enslaved, are viewed as people who are no longer of any use, and they can be discarded, without any thought given to their humanity,” Thomas said in an interview with The Hoya. “This whole view of people, as tools, seems to be a theme.”
Melisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a descendant of the GU272, noted that while the enslaved people buried at the site of the Old College Ground lie forgotten, the very Jesuits who organized the 1838 sale, Fr. William McSherry, S.J. and Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J. are buried in the Jesuit Community Cemetery at the heart of campus.
“Would any aspect of the Society of Jesus and Georgetown University ever consider building over the final resting place of the Jesuits in their cemetery, where Mulledy and McSherry now lay, to build a new dorm? No, never,” Short-Colomb said. “So once again, the least are sacrificed to the good of the most, and the powerful men who get to decide. People who were enslaved and trafficked by the Society of Jesus and Georgetown University had and have no say over their bodies in life or death.”
The burial records for Holy Trinity Church, which are documented on Georgetown’s online Slavery Archives, contain some of the names of enslaved people who were interred at the College Ground. At least two people presumed to be slaves of Georgetown are listed in the records: Rachel, who died in 1821 and is listed as “a col’d Woman of the College Wash house,” and Charles, who died in 1832, described simply as “black — servant of the college.”
Other sacramental records also contain allusions to slaves being buried at the College Ground. One such record, written by a Father McElroy in 1819, describes the death of an enslaved woman thought to be 17 years old whose funeral was attended by 400 people. Fletcher’s research has identified 13 slaves listed in Holy Trinity’s death register between 1821 and 1832.
The Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation — convened by President John J. DeGioia in September 2015 to provide recommendations on addressing the university’s past involvement with slavery — included a recommendation to “mark sites on our campus associated with the history of slavery with informative plaques.”
Since those recommendations were released, the university has instituted one marker on campus at Isaac Hawkins Hall, named after an enslaved man whose name appeared first on the Articles of Agreement authorizing the 1838 sale of slaves.
Members of the 15-person Working Group were not alerted about the discovery of the human femur on the site of the Old College Ground, which occurred in 2014, before they convened. However, while in session, the group was informed of the discovery of additional bones, which were determined to be animal remains.
Georgetown University spokesperson Meghan Dubyak said the university is committed to engaging with the descendant community to guide its memorialization efforts.
“As we continue memorialization efforts at Georgetown, we will be engaging members of the Descendant community to ensure their voices and perspectives are incorporated in any future plans,” Dubyak wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “Honoring the memory of the ancestors with a memorial on the Georgetown campus is a key step in this ongoing process.”
But Richard Cellini (COL ’84, LAW ’87), founder of the Georgetown Memory Project that works to locate descendants of Georgetown’s 1838 sale of slaves, said that the exclusion of descendants is already evident in the fact that the university failed to publicly disclose the discovery of the femur in 2014.
“If there is DNA that’s comparable in that bone that’s testable, we could compare it to existing GU272 descendants,” Cellini said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “It could easily be an ancestor of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of GU272 descendants who are alive.”
Cellini also stressed that the work of institutions like Georgetown is critical in locating the remains of African-American slaves.
However, he emphasized that this was not solely the responsibility of Georgetown or the Jesuit order — he points to the cemetery of the neighboring Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, run by nuns in the Order of Visitation of Holy Mary, which owned approximately 100 slaves from 1800-1862, according to a report released last May.
The death register of the Holy Trinity Church contains two references to slaves – a woman named Ruth who worked at Visitation and an unnamed child of the monastery – who may have been buried at the College Ground.
“In terms of resources and responsibilities, it’s not just one institution,” Cellini said. “It’s four institutions: Georgetown, the Jesuits, Visitation and the nuns, whose reputation is on the line here, in terms of knowing the truth about this plot of land.”
History Professor Marcia Chatelain, a member of the Working Group who has lived in Arrupe Hall as the faculty-in-residence since 2016, said she tries to be deliberate in thinking about the people once buried just yards away, particularly those tethered to the university through forced labor.
“I think about it often,” Chatelain said in an interview with The Hoya. “I think about the ways that histories can be so easily erased, and I think it’s important for us to think about not only how Georgetown continues to exist in the present, but how it got there. I think this type of research allows us to be more mindful and more respectful of the fact that a lot the things we have today are a result of great losses or great pain.”
Short-Colomb stressed her belief that there were no excuses for the university’s inaction in addressing the presence of burial grounds.
“You could have put up a sign. You could have painted a mural. You could have planted a tree. You could have done any number of things as the administration of the university who is invested in being proactive in addressing this. Or just said, ‘You know what, we’re lost here. We don’t know what to do, because this is all very new to us and we don’t have answers, but we’re willing to talk about it,’” Short-Colomb said.
Thomas said if descendants were to be consulted on the subject of burial grounds, their suggestion would be clear: to not hide the past.
“If more instances like these happen, they need to make them publicly known. And, of course, there needs to be memorialization to these people,” Thomas said. “Any sort of DNA evidence that can be retrieved from these remains should be shared publicly, because there is a large descendant community that is hungry for any morsel of information about their ancestors.”