The 272

About

* One of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2023

* A New Yorker Notable Book of 2023

* One of Time’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

* One of The Washington Post’s Notable Nonfiction Books of 2023

* 2024 PROSE Award from the Association of American Publishers 

* Longlisted for the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal 



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


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

The 272, Rachel L. Swarns’s deeply researched and revelatory new book…journeys to slavery’s heart of darkness: to the separation of families, the terror of being sold into the vast unknown and of bodies transformed into profits and investments. But it is also the moving human story of some of the people who endured and survived this ordeal, and who have long awaited rediscovery…. No single work of history can remedy the vexing issue of repair for slavery in America, but The 272 advances the conversation and challenges the collective conscience; without knowing this history in its complexity we are left with only raw, uncharted memory.”

— David Blight, The New York Times Book Review 

“Powerful and moving…Swarns centers the experiences of enslaved people owned by the Jesuits for nearly two centuries who remained largely unnamed and unknown until now…and weaves together extensive research, data, letters and oral histories to bring forth an intimate family story.”

— Ana Lucia Araujo, The Washington Post Book Review 

“Swarns reminds us that the legacy of slavery is simultaneously the legacy of resistance, a precious gift that ancestors bestow on descendants and that scholars can sometimes hear in oral accounts or glimpse in the written archive.”

— Tiya Miles, The New York Review of Books  

“…a vivid and compelling narrative…that illuminates the pragmatic motives of the Jesuits and recovers from near-oblivion the lives of the enslaved people at the center of the story….Ms. Swarns has brilliantly mined archives and oral histories to tease out buried connections and biographical details.”

— Fergus M. Bordewich, The Wall Street Journal 

“…a vivid, pointillistically detailed narrative that foregrounds the people who were enslaved even as it tells the story of the school buildings erected with their labor and the institutions sustained and funded by their sale.”

— The New Yorker

“A vital new work…The 272 is a meticulously researched work of narrative history and investigative journalism.”

— The Guardian 

The 272 is an unflinching condemnation of the Catholic Church’s past and a long overdue eulogy for those who are long gone but should never be forgotten.”

— Time Magazine  

“Admirably fair-minded…[A] splendid book.”

— America Magazine

“A brilliant blend of history and journalism, this book unearths the story of the enslaved people whose labor benefited the Catholic Church — and what happened when their descendants sought answers.”

— People Magazine

“When books like this one come along, I sing its praises, especially when the research and writing are this damn good.”

— Ms. Magazine

“Studying the era from the early days of the Jesuits in the United States to the Civil War, Swarns makes clear that the 1838 sale was just one of many moments in which the exploitation of enslaved people shaped and secured the future of the university and the Jesuit order.”

— Commonweal Magazine

“This immersive and doggedly reported account…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…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…a powerful reminder of how firmly the roots of slavery are planted in America’s soil. (June)

— Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Lively and scrupulously documented, the book brings to light a previously unknown piece of the history of slavery in the U.S.”

— Kirkus, starred review

“With empathy and meticulous care, Swarns lays bare the hard truths surrounding the sale…This book is essential reading.”

— Booklist, starred review

“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

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

“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