image of Rachel smiling

 “As a journalist and as a professor, I investigate history, the history of American slavery. I look at how we live with this history, and I look at how the legacy of slavery shapes who we are now as Americans.’’

Rachel L. Swarns is a journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at New York University, who writes about race and history as a contributing writer for The New York Times. Her articles about Georgetown University’s roots in slavery touched off a national conversation about American universities and their ties to this painful period of history. Her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the Biographers International Organization, the MacDowell artist residency program and others. Her latest book, The 272: The Families who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, was published by Random House. In 2023, she was elected to the Society of American Historians. In 2024, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

At the Times, Swarns served as a full-time reporter and correspondent for 22 years. She has reported from Russia, Cuba, Guatemala and southern Africa, where she served as the Times’ Johannesburg bureau chief. She has covered immigration, presidential politics and Michelle Obama and her role in the Obama White House. She also served as a Metro columnist in New York City. As a senior writer for the paper, she helped to lead and innovate on coverage of issues of race and ethnicity.

In 2018, she joined NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she focuses on American slavery and its legacies. At the Institute, she serves as the director of a new research initiative, “Hidden Legacies: Slavery, Race and the Making of 21st Century America,’’ which seeks to deepen Americans’ understanding of the connections between slavery and contemporary institutions.

Her new book, The 272, emerged from her reporting at the Times and focuses on Georgetown and the Catholic Church and their roots in slavery. It was selected as one of the notable books of 2023 by the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, Time magazine, The Washington Post, the Chicago Public Library and Kirkus Reviews. The 272 won a 2024 PROSE Award from the Association of American Publishers, which honors authors whose landmark works have made significant advances in their scholarly fields. It was also one of 24 books longlisted for the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Swarns is also the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, which traces the journey of Mrs. Obama’s forbears from slavery to the White House in five generations. American Tapestry was ranked as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012 by the New York Times Book Review and as one of the year’s best biographies by Booklist.

She is a co-author of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives, published by Black Dog & Leventhal in 2017, which explores the history of hundreds of images that languished for decades in the New York Times archives.

Swarns, who was born and raised in New York City, graduated from Stuyvesant High School, Howard University (B.A. in Spanish and Black Diaspora studies) and the University of Kent in Canterbury, England (M.A. in International Relations.) She serves as an academic adviser to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., which is launching an exhibit based on her book about Michelle Obama’s ancestors. She has appeared on national programs such as National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, CNN and CBS This Morning and speaks to groups and audiences around the country.

Q&A with Rachel

Q: You are Black and Catholic. Did you know about the Catholic Church’s roots in slavery when you were growing up?

Growing up in Staten Island, New York, I lived just a few blocks away from a convent that ran a bookstore and a community festival that was a highlight of my childhood summers. My mother and my aunts, three of my uncles and both of my sisters were all educated by Catholic nuns. My sisters went to Catholic schools. My mother and her family, who emigrated from the Bahamas to New York in the 1950s, even lived for a time back then on a farm run by Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a candidate for sainthood. The church we knew tended to Irish and Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren, and a smattering of Black families. So in 2016, when I stumbled across the story about the Jesuit priests who sold 272 people in 1838 to help keep Georgetown University afloat, I was astounded. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the Catholic Church, like so many American institutions, was deeply rooted in what was essentially a slave society.

Q: You broke the story in The New York Times about the discovery of the descendants of the enslaved families who were sold in 1838 to save Georgetown. How did you stumble across the story?

In January of 2016, I received an email from a colleague at the Times. She told me that she had received a note from Richard Cellini, a corporate executive she knew, who happened to be an alumnus of Georgetown University. He was pitching a story about an 1838 slave sale, organized by powerful Jesuit priests, who were trying to raise money to save the struggling college, which was the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning.  My colleague remembered that I had done archival research for my first book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, which chronicled the lives of Mrs. Obama’s enslaved ancestors. So she forwarded the email to me. As soon as I saw that email, I knew. My work on Mrs. Obama’s family had allowed me to explore how slavery had shaped American families. This story would allow me to take the next step, to explore how slavery had shaped American institutions.

Q: Many of your readers are astonished to learn that slavery helped to fuel the growth of the Catholic Church in the United States. Why is this history so unfamiliar to us?

It astonishes us because we don’t realize how deeply slavery was embedded in our economy. Many of us view the Catholic Church as a Northern church or as an immigrant church. But the Catholic Church established its foothold in the South. And for more than a century, it relied on plantations and slave labor to help finance the livelihoods of its priests and nuns, and to support its schools and religious projects. Enslaved people helped to build the early Catholic Church and to fuel its expansion. But this is not something that we typically hear about at Mass, or in Sunday school, or in Catholic schools or in our history classes.  Enslaved people have largely been left out of the origin story that is traditionally told about the Catholic Church. 

Q: Did any Catholic priests question the morality of slavery?

The Catholic priests in Maryland, who built the foundations of the early Catholic Church, believed that the Black people they owned had souls. They baptized them, married them and often required them to attend Mass, even as they enslaved and sold them, sometimes tearing families apart. These contradictions troubled some clergymen. They were lonely voices, but they made themselves heard. Some wrote to Rome with concerns and questions. Some challenged their superiors, vehemently opposing the mass sale of 1838. Others tried to work within the slave system, offering the people they held captive a measure of autonomy. Their leaders, who viewed the Black families they enslaved as assets to be held, bought and sold, prevailed. But the priests I’m describing recognized the humanity of the families they enslaved and the inhumanity of the slave system that helped to build the largest religious denomination in the United States. 

Q: What did you learn about the families who were enslaved and sold to build the American Catholic Church?

This is a book about family and about holding on to family, even in the harshest of circumstances. I focused on the Mahoney family, one of the families torn apart in the 1838 sale. Their story begins with Ann Joice, a free Black woman and the matriarch of the Mahoney family. She sailed to Maryland in the late 1600s as an indentured servant, but her contract was burned and her freedom stolen. Her descendants, who were enslaved by Jesuit priests, passed down the story of that broken promise for centuries. Some challenged their enslavers and found their way to freedom. Others struggled to carve out a measure of autonomy and safety on the Jesuit plantations. Two of those descendants, Louisa and Anna, who were sisters, were put up for sale in 1838. One sister managed to escape. The other was sold and shipped to Louisiana. They would never see each other again. More than a century later, my reporting for The New York Times would finally reunite their descendants, who joined with other GU272 descendants to press Georgetown and the Catholic Church to make amends. Theirs is a story of heartbreak, but it is also a story about love, resistance and the irrepressible hunger for liberty.

Q: What has changed since your first story about Georgetown ran in the New York Times?

More than a million people read the first story that I wrote back in 2016. Hundreds of people discovered that their ancestors had been enslaved and sold by the priests who built Georgetown and the early Catholic Church and they pressed Georgetown and the Jesuits to take concrete steps to make amends. In September of 2016, Georgetown, which began wrestling with its history before my first story ran, became the first major university to offer preference in admissions to descendants. Three years later, the university’s leaders announced that the college would raise $400,000 a year for projects to benefit descendants.  In 2021, the Jesuits, in partnership with three descendant leaders, promised to raise $100 million to benefit descendants, who now number in the thousands, and to promote racial reconciliation initiatives. The move has been challenged by some descendants who say too little of the funding will go to projects benefiting their communities, and fundraising has lagged. But the agreement represents the largest effort to date by the Catholic Church to make amends for the buying, selling and enslavement of Black people in the United States.

Q: You point out that Georgetown and the Catholic Church aren’t the only contemporary institutions with ties to this painful chapter of American history. There are others?

We often think about slavery as old history, as history that’s completely disconnected from us. That’s simply not the case. Slavery was the engine that helped to fuel the growth of many of our contemporary institutions: Universities, churches, banks, insurance companies. And not just institutions in the south. I’ve written about insurance companies, including New York Life, Aetna and US Life, which sold insurance policies to slave owners, for instance, allowing them to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of that enslaved person’s untimely death. And banks absorbed by JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo allowed Southerners seeking loans to use their slaves as collateral and took possession of some of them when their owners defaulted. It is critical to understand that slavery involved more than just the south and that it’s more than just history. It lives with us, all of us, now.