The elite Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., has had to face an ugly side of its past after research revealed that the founding nuns of the school didn’t teach slaves to read, as the legend goes – the nuns actually sold slaves.
It was the 1820s and debt was piling up for Mother Agnes Brent, the superior of the Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington. The convent had broken ground on a new chapel. To fund the chapel’s construction, Brent needed money, and it came: relatives of two nuns had four spare slaves, two adults and two children, and offered them as a “gift” to Georgetown Visitation to sell.
This is just one instance that was found and documented in a report compiled by a Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School archivist and historian. These revelations have rocked the school, one of the oldest Roman Catholic girls’ educational institutions in the nation and destroyed its rosy self-image.
It was common knowledge that the founding nuns of the school owned slaves, but school lore has held that the sisters allowed enslaved children to attend Saturday school and defied the law by teaching them how to read.
That’s not what happened.
The 65-page report, which is available online, details the way the nuns sold scores of enslaved people. Georgetown Visitation sisters owned at least 107 enslaved people, including men, women and children, from a year after its founding until 1862, when the federal government made slavery illegal in the District, the report found.
“It’s hard history to read, and that’s the reality of it,” Caroline Handorf, the director of communications for Georgetown Visitation, told The Washington Post. “But you can’t move forward unless you understand where you’re coming from.”
Ne’Miya McKnight, 16, a junior at Georgetown Visitation, told The Post that she thought that white students at the schol were more shocked than nonwhite students.
“Slaves built a lot of D.C. — all over the U.S., but D.C. especially,” McKnight told The Post. “We were glad, though, that Visitation was focusing on this history of having enslaved people on campus — not tapping into that energy, exactly, but just acknowledging it.”