The History of Enslaved People at Visitation
As our national consciousness has awoken to the lasting legacy of slavery and the importance of understanding our history, so too has Visitation's. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made clear in their 2018 pastoral letter, Open Wide Our Hearts, “...[A]s a nation, we have never sufficiently contended with the impact of overt racism. Nor have we spent the necessary time to examine where the racist attitudes of yesterday have become a permanent part of our perceptions, practices, and policies of today, or how they have been enshrined in our social, political, and economic structures.”
In September 2016, we embarked on a journey to more fully understand our past. We began a special Monastery and school joint project: The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation: Learning, Reflecting, and Teaching, sponsored by the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center.
The shadow of slavery is long. Even today, more than 150 years after emancipation, we see evidence of the deep wounds slavery has left on us as a nation. In shedding light on this difficult part of our history, we hope to learn how we can not only ensure our community is welcoming and inclusive, but also make our world more equitable and just. Our goals are to:
- Recognize the contributions of enslaved people to our school,
- Research the history of enslaved people at Georgetown Visitation;
- Foster dialogue about our history and the difficult questions it raises; and
- Encourage critical thinking, reflection, prayer, and action within our school and Monastery community.
Since its inception, the steering committee overseeing this project has been working to expand our body of research, determine how best to share this history, and discern how we move forward. We undertake this work with honesty and humility, always seeking to restore the dignity and honor the humanity of the individuals who were enslaved at Georgetown Visitation.
The fact that the Sisters of the Visitation owned slaves is in both of our published histories, but this chapter of our history has been largely unexplored until recently. When the Salesian Center was founded in May 2016, we were able to hire an experienced historian to serve as our full-time School Archivist and research Georgetown Visitation's enslaved community, drawing on documents assembled by Monastery Archivist, Sr. Mada-anne Gell, VHM, as well as public sources.
The research report expands our understanding of Visitation’s history by:
- Expanding on previous research using documents found in the Monastery Archives and public documents; and
- Elucidating the architectural history of the oldest buildings on campus, using previously unpublished archival material.
To date, we have identified, either by name or by brief description, 121 enslaved people owned by the Sisters of the Visitation between 1800 and 1862. Care has been taken to cross-reference evidence to avoid double counting. Wherever possible, individuals have been traced following emancipation using documentary evidence.
Despite the diligent work of our archivists and the committee, there are some questions that may never be answered. However, careful study of the documentary evidence gives us a window into the community in its early years.
The release of this report is only the beginning of our work "Learning, Reflecting, and Teaching." We plan to engage our campus community to help us:
- Incorporate this substantial primary research into our ongoing study and interpretation of this school's long and rich history;
- Integrate this history and related social justice content into our curricular and co-curricular offerings;
- Understand how this new information impacts our community;
- Identify opportunities for reflection and reconciliation; and
- Identify ways we can make our community more inclusive.
One of our Salesian Little Virtues is honesty; we are committed to openness and transparency as we move forward together. We will continue to work humbly and prayerfully with our community to take what we have learned and translate it into action that will strengthen our school and improve the world in which we live.
God in heaven, we acknowledge and remember those who were enslaved on this campus, those who contributed to the growth and success of our school, not by their choice but through the evil of slavery.
They are the women, men and children who to this point have been anonymous, faceless and nameless. We have deprived them of their name and their dignity, and for this we beg forgiveness. We now remember them with the respect they are due.
We ask for forgiveness for our part in the cultural sins of slavery, and for the way that it was lived out in our early community here at Georgetown Visitation. We apologize for a lack of moral courage in addressing these transgressions.
But God, we are an Easter people, committed to hope. We pray that we can also be a people committed to change. Inspire us to see each and every person we meet as our equal and as a child of God. Accept our prayers of contrition for the failures of the past and reinforce in us the desire and need to live out our discipleship, as women and men of faith, vision, and purpose as we create a world of justice, compassion, and lasting peace. We ask for these things in Jesus' name.
The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation: Digital Archive
As part of our Monastery and school joint project, The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation, we have gathered and shared here all archival evidence related to this subject.
This primary document digital archive brings together over 70 documents that were meticulously assembled in the Georgetown Visitation Monastery Archives during a 3-year-long project of arranging and cataloging its contents. This material sheds light on the school and Monastery’s slaveholding past and represents all documents related to this history presently known to be in the Monastery and School Archives.
These digital copies provide researchers access to these documents for study, while preserving the fragile original papers. Each PDF is named its unique identifying number that serves as the corresponding citation for this primary source. Researchers may quote from Visitation's Archives materials without special permission, but should cite the document as directed in the "How to Cite This Website" section above.
- 1819 Campus Map by Father Pierre Cloriviere
- GVSA 6 2-2#4
- GVSA 6 2-2#5
Mary Kate Blaine
Dr. Barbara McGraw Edmondson, Chair
Head of School
Suzie Koones Egan '79
Director of Alumnae Relations
Peggy Judge Hamilton '85
Caroline Coleman Handorf '96
Director of Communications
Sr. Mary Berchmans Hannan '48 & '50
Monastery Superior & President Emerita
Olivia Wills Kane '85
Director of the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center
Monastery Board Chair
Director of College Counseling
Chair, Department of Fine & Performing Arts
In the News
- Catholic Standard "Living legacy: Georgetown Visitation’s report on its slavery past has goal of building a more welcoming and inclusive school for future"
- Georgetown Metropolitan "Georgetown Visitation Wrestles with Its Own History of Owning Enslaved People"
- The New York Times "The Nuns Who Bought and Sold Human Beings"
- The Washington Post "An elite D.C. girls’ school thought its founding nuns taught slaves to read. Instead, they sold them off for as much as they could."