Existing Scholarship

Draft posted: 2019-02-09

A foreign-born Jesuit, Fidelis Grivel was a particularly well-situated individual to report on the aftermath of the sale. In a way, he was both an outsider and an insider. Not raised in Maryland, Grivel had not grown up in a world dominated by slavery. Yet, as a Jesuit, he was dedicated to the collaborative mission of the Province in Maryland. That meant that he was a full participant in the governance structure that made it possible for the priests to own land and people in common. As such, agree or disagree, Grivel was in part responsible for the decision to sell their enslaved property, rather than to manumit or sell them for a term of service before freedom. For the contemporary scholar, he is one among dozens of Jesuits who offered glimpses of aspects of the lives of the enslaved. His reflections and those of his fellow priests force us to see first through Jesuit eyes. And just as those stories were from the Jesuit perspective at the time, the subsequent historical scholarship has also been dominated by Jesuit perspectives and scholars.

Early in the twentieth century, a set of Jesuit scholars and archivist laid the foundation for what has come to be the basic understanding of the order's involvement in slaveholding in Maryland. Thomas Hughes, SJ, worked to craft a multi-volume history of the Society of Jesus in North America (1908) that included both historical narrative and transcriptions of key documents. While slavery was not his sole focus, Hughes recognized that he could not offer a full history of the order without dealing with the plantations and their laborers. Shortly thereafter, Joseph Zwinge, SJ, procurator for the Maryland Province at the time, published a series of article in the Woodstock Letters that focused specifically on the Jesuit-owned farms in Maryland, which included significant attention to the enslaved community. At the beginning of the 1930s, Edward Devitt, SJ, again revisited the history of the farms in the Woodstock Letters but managed to do so without hardly mentioning the enslaved community at all. Finally, in 1959, Robert Judge, SJ, turned his attention to the transition of the Maryland Mission to the establishment of a full-fledged Province in 1833, again with minor attention to the issue of slavery.1

Beginning in the 1970s, Jesuit scholars turned concerted attention to questions surrounding the order's history with slavery in Maryland. In 1974, Peter Finn wrote a Masters degree thesis that focused directly on the lives and conditions of the enslaved community, but his work was heavily filtered through the Jesuit-authored secondary sources upon which he relied. Then, in the early 1980s, Emmett Curran, then a Jesuit, wrote what was at the time the most thorough examination of the Nineteenth Century decision-making process that the Jesuits went through about the status of their enslaved community and their ultimate decision to sell in 1838. As with Finn, and other scholars, Curran's analysis of the situation focused heavily on the poor financial condition of the Maryland Province in motivating the sale. Curran expanded the frame of this work in 1993 with the publication of the first volume of his bicentennial history of Georgetown University. Then, in 2004, Thomas Murphy, SJ, published his dissertation on the subject. Like his precursors, Murphy focused on Jesuit motivations and understanding their role as slaveholders.2

Despite this large body of scholarship spanning roughly a century, the story of this enslaved community received little attention outside circles focused on U.S. Catholic history until recently. Since 2015, the descendants of the community sold to Louisiana in 1838, Georgetown University, and the Maryland Province Jesuits, have been bound up in a series of important and fraught conversations about how the university and the province should address their contemporary obligations for their historical role in slavery and its implications for the enslaved and their families. This work at reconciliation and repair has been difficult and slow going, but it has resulted in an initial effort to offer full public access to the archival sources by publishing online through the Georgetown Slavery Archive.3



  1. Thomas Hughes, History of the Society of Jesus in North America: Colonial and Federal (Text) (London : Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908). (list all the volumes?). Joseph Zwinge, "The Jesuit Farms in Maryland. Facts and Anecdotes," Woodstock Letters XXXIX, no. 3 (1910): 374–82; Joseph Zwinge, "The Jesuit Farms in Maryland. Facts and Anecdotes.," Woodstock Letters XL, no. 2 (1911): 180–99; Joseph Zwinge, "The Jesuit Farms in Maryland. Facts and Anecdotes," Woodstock LettersXLI, no. 2 (1912): 195–222. (there should be a couple more? Also, link to Jesuit digital library?). Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province I," Woodstock Letters LX, no. 2 (1931); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, II," Woodstock Letters LX, no. 3 (1931); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, III," Woodstock Letters LXI, no. I (1932); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, III," Woodstock Letters LXI, no. 2 (1932); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, IX," Woodstock Letters LXII, no. 3 (1933); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, VII," Woodstock Letters LXII, no. 2 (1933); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, IX," Woodstock Letters LXIII, no. 1 (1934); Edward Devitt, "History of the Maryland-New York Province, IX," Woodstock Letters LXIII, no. 2 (1934). Robert Judge, "Foundation and First Administration of the Maryland Province," Woodstock Letters 88, no. 4 (1959): 376–406.
  2. Peter C. Finn, "The Slaves of the Jesuits in Maryland" (thesis, Georgetown University, 1974), https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/1044615. R. Emmett Curran, "'Splendid Poverty': Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1805-1838," in Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture, ed. Jon L. Wakelyn and Randall M. Miller (Mercer University Press, 1999), 125–46; Robert Emmett Curran, The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University 1789-1889 (Georgetown University Press, 1993). Thomas Murphy, Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1717-1838, Studies in African American History and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001).
  3. Georgetown is not alone in facing these challenges. Brown. Universities Studying Slavery. Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Reprint edition (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).