Gonzaga College High School students research institution’s ties to slavery

In light of the recent discovery that Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in order to pay off debts, this past summer six Gonzaga College High School students wanted to know if their institution had any ties to the dark history of slavery.  The connection was plausible because, as the Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel explained in an article yesterday, before it became Gonzaga, the institution was called the Washington Seminary, which was a annex of Georgetown.

So sixteen and seventeen year olds Jack Boland, Daniel Podratsky, Jack Brown, Hameed Nelson, Joe Boland, and Matthew Johnson, under the supervision of history teacher Ed Donnellan, for a couple of weeks combed Georgetown University’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections.  Their work was spurred by a November 2016 lecture that took place at Gonzaga by Adam Rothman, a Georgetown history professor and the principal curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive.  Following the talk, Mr. Donnellan asked if pupils wanted to volunteer to investigate the school’s past.  Ms. Siegel details what they discovered:

“That earlier research showed how Georgetown had profited from Jesuit-owned plantations that thrived across the region. What about our school, the Gonzaga students wondered. Did it, too, benefit from, and help sustain, the global slave trade of the 19th century?

They found their answers: Profit from those plantations was funneled to Washington Seminary, which at the time was part of Georgetown. And two slaves — Gabriel and another named Isaih — worked at the school for an unknown period of time.”

The students became fascinated by multiple references to Gabriel.  The Post continues the story:

“Multiple mentions of Gabriel being tipped small amounts appear in records kept by the seminary. And there’s a reference in a Georgetown accounts ledger that describes him as ‘a black boy from the Seminary of Washington.’

How Gabriel got to Georgetown isn’t entirely clear, though the students suspect he was brought by a family and used as counterbalance to get $1 off tuition per month. One document suggests he took the place of another slave in 1827.

Another document from a Georgetown accounts ledger notes ‘Gabe’ was sold for $450 to an unknown buyer, with a 5 percent commission going to an Edward Millard, who once attended the Washington Seminary.”

Gonzaga separated from Georgetown in 1858.  The school’s website states that as “the oldest all-boys school in Washington, DC, Gonzaga has a rich legacy that stretches back nearly 200 years. Over the course of that history, Gonzaga has demonstrated and reaffirmed a deep commitment to Jesuit education. And it has chosen to do so in the heart of the inner city—on a street shared with leaders of business and government, and on a block where it ministers to the least fortunate in society.”  The school accepts some students through Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the school voucher plan in the District that offers tuition to private schools.

Hameed Nelson, one of the students doing the research, wonders what they can do now that they have the information about Gabriel.  Mr. Donnellan says he is thinking about building a memorial garden.

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