Monday, July 04, 2016

John Newton, Georgetown University & The Road to Reconciliation

British abolitionist John Newton
It seems quite appropriate to reflect on reconciliation on the 4th of July in America.

After all, today marks the date when the Continental Congress officially declared that the original Thirteen Colonies regarded themselves as a separate independent nation by adopting the Declaration of Independence back on July 4, 1776.

America's first step in the start of a long and costly process of reconciliation with England took place 240 years ago; three years after the words of the hymn Amazing Grace were first read in public - words that speak of the power of spiritual reconciliation, grace and forgiveness.

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." 

Those powerful opening lyrics from one of the most widely recognized and well-loved hymns of all time were written by an ordained English clergyman named John Newton back in 1772.

Inspired by his own experiences which led to his conversion to Christianity, he wrote the words for a sermon he delivered to his congregation in Olney in Buckinghamshire, England on New Year's Day 1773.    

The words first appeared in print as an actual hymn in 1779, but the familiar song Amazing Grace as we know it today did not appear until 1835 when Newton's lyrics were paired with an old English melody called "New Britain". 

Vicarage where Newton wrote Amazing Grace
John Newton was born in 1725 and he did not start out life as a clergyman of the Church of England. His father was a shipmaster and Newton began accompanying him on ocean voyages to the Mediterranean when he just eleven years old.

At the age of eighteen, he was pressed into service in the Royal Navy as a sailor, where he would eventually serve aboard a slave ship that carried Africans from the west coast of Africa to the West Indies, then back to England.

Newton eventually became the captain of slave ships that would carry goods from England to the west coast of Africa, trade the goods for slaves, transport the slaves as human cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to South and Central America or Islands in the Caribbean where the slaves would be sold or traded for goods like indigo or sugarcane that would then be transported back across the Atlantic to England - where the dark cycle of commerce and human misery would begin again.

Between 1750 and 1754 he made several such voyages as the captain of three different ships.

Depending on the size of the ship, slave ships could carry anywhere between 200 and 600 African captives packed into tight spaces like cargo, so during the time that he worked in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade Newton was partially responsible for, or participated in (and profited off of), the transportation of hundreds and hundreds of African men, women and children who'd been kidnapped from their native land and forced into slavery thousands of miles from home.

John Newton's pamphlet cover page
During his nine years as a slave trader, Newton witnessed unspeakable suffering, cruelty and death as a participant in the world's first multi-national global corporate enterprise.

An enterprise primarily financed by European banks from nations including England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands.

Even though a stroke in 1754 ended Newton's days on the high seas, for years he continued to invest in and profit from the slave trade.

The horrors he witnessed played a major role in his religious conversion and he wrote about them in troubling detail in a widely-read pamphlet, Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, published in 1788 when the British parliament was considering a bill to ban the African slave trade altogether.

There are differing accounts about the actual moment of Newton's religious awakening.

In journalist / writer Bill Moyers 1990 documentary Amazing Grace about the history and cultural significance of Newton's hymn, one verbal recollection claims that while Newton was sailing back to England after a particularly horrific voyage in which brutal storms and terrible sea conditions contributed to an unusually large number of slaves dying during the trip, Newton was in his cabin when  God suddenly revealed the massive scope of the suffering inflicted upon the slaves Newton had transported in some kind of vision that opened his eyes to their suffering - and his role in it.

According to that account, he began writing down some of the words of Amazing Grace.

But according to Newton's autobiography 'Out of the Depths', the start of Newton's lengthy religious conversion supposedly came in 1748 shortly after being rescued from being held captive the by Sherbro people of west Africa when he was aboard a British merchant ship that began to sink off the coast of Ireland.

By his own account, Newton awoke in the middle of the night praying in earnest as the ship was starting to sink, when the leak was somehow stopped by shifting cargo in the hold and the ship was able to make it to safety.

Regardless of the exact moment it occurred, Newton's conversion to the ministry and his own efforts to reconcile his willing participation in the slave trade with his spiritual awakening, Christian teachings and human rights were influential in the formation of the abolitionist movement in England that eventually led to the UK's outlawing of the African slave trade in 1807.

Former Georgetown President Rev Thomas Mulledy
Over the past month I've been thinking a lot about reconciliation and the slave trade.

Back in April, Georgetown University made headlines with its acknowledgment that 272 African-American slaves owned by the university were sold in 1838 by the two Jesuit priest presidents running the then-largest Catholic university in America, Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry.

The priests sold the slaves and shipped them to Louisiana in 1839 to pay off debts owed by the university.

In the fall of 2015, student protests gripped Georgetown's campus over the controversy generated by the decision to rename a building after Rev. Mulledy.

The publicity that surrounded the re-opening of a dark chapter in Georgetown's history gained traction after similar student protests at Princeton University over campus buildings named after former president Woodrow Wilson (a notorious segregationist who advocated for institutional racism within the ranks of the federal government) culminated with students occupying the office of Princeton's president.

Unlike Princeton, Georgetown, prompted in part by pressure brought by students, faculty members and alumni, undertook a pathway towards reconciliation with it's slave holding past by engaging in dialog and exploring the possible ways the university could compensate the descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold - and what form that compensation should take.

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson meets with John DeGioia 
As Rachel Swarns reported in the New York Times, on Monday June 13th, Georgetown University president John DeGioia traveled to Spokane, Washington to meet with Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, the great-great-great granddaughter of two of the slaves that the university sold in 1838 - Nace and Biby Butler.

While a number of American universities have acknowledged ties to the slave trade, DeGioia's meeting with Bayonne-Johnson is the first time a prominent university president has met facet-to-face with the descendent of a slave once owned by the university.

As such, it marks an incredibly important step in the awkward process of America's reconciliation with slavery.

As Terrence McCoy reported in an article in the Washington Post on June 17th, it was actually Bayonne-Johnson who was responsible for uncovering the actual link between Georgetown and the 272 slaves sold in 1838; even university historians were unsure of the fate of the slaves.

But that didn't mean the university wasn't trying understand its links to slaves owned by the Jesuits.

According to a 2007 article titled 'The Jesuit's Slaves' published in The Georgetown Voice, back in 1996, the university created an actual curriculum in the American Studies department at the behest of two history professors, University Dean Hubert Cloke and professor Emmett Curran known as The Jesuit Plantation Project.

St. Thomas Manor in Maryland
Part of the intent of the project was for students to analyze, transcribe and digitize hundreds of documents from the Jesuit's ownership and management of six different plantations in Maryland, four of those plantations in Prince Georges, Charles and St. Mary's countys encompassed over 12,000 acres - and there were two smaller plantations on the eastern shore of Maryland as well.

More than 30 of the 272 slaves sold in 1838 came from Jesuit-owned St. Thomas Manor Plantation (pictured left).

With 272 slaves coming from six different Jesuit-owned plantations being sold to different plantations in Louisiana, the complexity of tracking down their descendants comes into focus.

As the Washington Post article cited above reported, during the process of conducting genealogy research for a family reunion, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson hired a researcher named Judy Riffel to search documents related to her own descendants who were slaves sold by Jesuits.

Riffel located a sales transaction document dated November 10, 1839 noting the sale of "64 Negroes" by Thomas Mulledy of Washington, D.C to a Louisiana landowner named Jesse Batey who'd purchased large numbers of slaves from Maryland (where the plantation Georgetown University owned was located) to Louisiana.

Ex-Louisiana Gov. Henry Johnson
According to university archive records, a Georgetown student named Henry Johnson, listed as the son of ex-Louisiana Governor Henry Johnson (pictured left), was attending Georgetown in 1838 when his father (a former governor and congressman) purchased 148 slaves from the Jesuits on behalf of himself, Jesse Batey and another former governor named Henry Thibodaux.

Patricia Bayonne-Jackson's research gained national attention when a prominent Georgetown alumnus from Boston named Richard Cellini, troubled over the university's sale of the slaves, found Bayonne-Jackson's Website chronicling her research and contacted her.

Within days, he donated the resources to set up a non-profit called the Georgetown Memory Center and hired Bayonne-Johnson and seven other genealogists to track down the descendants of all 272 slaves sold in 1838.

As of last month the project had located over 2,000 descendants and contacted between 50 and 60 of them; the importance of that step cannot be overestimated.

Under the direction of President John DeGioia, Georgetown also created its own online repository for the digitized Jesuit plantation records as well as information on the slave sales and the Louisiana plantations where they were sold as part of a larger effort to determine exactly how the school will acknowledge it's links to the institution of slavery.

It's fair to say that the subject of slave reparations presents a rather prickly topic of discussion in a nation  as divided along the lines of racial identity as America is today; particularly in such a divisive political climate.

The subject of America's reconciliation with the institution of slavery is as complex as the consequences of the legacy of institutionalized racism in a country whose very foundation is irrevocably linked to an agrarian economy built upon a system of enforced slave labor.

But the efforts of people like John Newton, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, Richard Cellini, John DeGioia and other students, alumni and faculty of Georgetown University, as well as numerous amateur genealogists, researchers, historians and enthusiasts around the nation offer hope.

Hope that scholarship, research and a willingness to embrace history instead of fearing it, will win out in a nation long divided over issues of race and ethnicity - hope that we as a diverse nation of people will one day reconcile with an institution built on the backs of the enforced labor and dehumanization of millions of Americans.

Amazing Grace manifested as genuine change forged by higher consciousness, to me that's what a happy Independence Day in America is really all about.

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