The 272


Now available for pre-order   |   Available in bookstores June 13th

An urgent new chapter in the history of the Catholic Church and America’s reckoning with its founding narrative

“Outstanding . . . an incredible project of research, deciphering, and storytelling, and a devastating indictment not only of Georgetown but also of the entire Catholic Church.
– Steven Hahn, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Nation Under Our Feet and A Nation Without Borders

In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In this powerful account, journalist, author, and professor Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover the harrowing origin story of the Catholic Church in the United States.Through the saga of the Mahoney family, Swarns illustrates how the Church relied on slave labor and slave sales to sustain its operations and to help finance its expansion. The story begins with Ann Joice, a free Black woman and the matriarch of the Mahoney family. Joice 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. One of those descendants, Harry Mahoney, saved lives and the church’s money in the War of 1812, but his children, including Louisa and Anna, were put up for sale in 1838. One daughter managed to escape. The other was sold and shipped to Louisiana. Their descendants would remain apart until Rachel Swarns’s reporting in The New York Times finally reunited them. They would go on to join other GU272 descendants who pressed Georgetown and the Catholic Church to make amends, prodding the institutions to break new ground in the movement for reparations and reconciliation in America.Swarns’s journalism has already started a national conversation about universities with ties to slavery. The 272 tells a bigger story, demonstrating how slavery fueled the growth of the Catholic Church in America and bringing to light the enslaved people whose forced labor helped to build the largest religious denomination in the nation.

Critical acclaim

“This is a deeply researched and passionately told story that speaks to our ongoing need to confront the legacy of America’s original sin of slavery.”

– James M. O’Toole, author of The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America

The 272 is revealing about old sins in the Catholic Church and conclusive at tying American higher education to slavery, but the wonderful part is that Swarns reveals and persuades by telling the story of one Black family across the 1800s—people whose names you learn and lives you follow for three generations, individuals who find their way through the tunnel of enslavement and come out whole.”

– Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family and Life of a Klansman

“Rachel L. Swarns’s The 272 tells the poignant story of the Black families at the heart of early  Catholic America. Owned and sold by Jesuit priests, these families fought to hold on to body and soul across generations. Through dogged research and with great insight, Swarns has stitched together a history once torn apart by slavery, distance, and time.””

– Adam Rothman, PhD, director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies

“NYU journalism professor Swarns (American Tapestry) expands on her 2016 New York Times article in this immersive and doggedly reported account, which reveals how the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved men, women, and children saved the debt-ridden Jesuit college now known as Georgetown University. In devastating detail, Swarns traces the sale’s impact on the families of Anna and Louisa Mahoney, sisters who labored on a Jesuit-owned plantation in St. Mary’s County, Md., until Anna and her children were sold to a plantation in Louisiana. Thanks to DNA testing and Swarns’s reporting, their descendants reunited nearly two centuries later. Intertwined with the Mahoney family story is Swarns’s searing investigation into the Catholic Church’s deep involvement in American slavery, which has fueled debates at Georgetown and other colleges and universities about what the Church owes to the descendants of those whose labor and sale value bolstered its financial, political, and spiritual power in America. Swarns makes excellent use of archival sources to recreate the lives of the enslaved families and the circumstances of the sale, which was fiercely opposed by some Jesuit priests at the time. It’s a powerful reminder of how firmly the roots of slavery are planted in America’s soil. (June)””

– Publishers Weekly, starred review