Georgetown Prep as well as Georgetown College (later Georgetown University) sprang from the vision of Rev. John Carroll, who founded Georgetown Academy in 1789 on a site overlooking the Potomac River. Father Carroll, a former Jesuit as a result of the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, would also become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.
Fr. Carroll regarded the new school, which quickly became known as Georgetown College, as critical to the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. He viewed it as a potential source of both priestly vocations and educated Catholic lay citizens able to play a significant role in the affairs of the new republic. The school welcomed its first student, 13-year-old William Gaston, from New Bern, North Carolina, in late 1791. Classes commenced in January 1792, and by June, approximately 40 other students from Maryland, Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania had joined Gaston. In April of that same year, the first international students – Nicholas and Jean Jacques Février from the French West Indies -- had enrolled. From its inception, Georgetown also accepted students from religious traditions other than Roman Catholic.
Fr. Carroll relied on fellow ex-Jesuits and French members of the Society of Saint- Sulpice to guide the school in its early years. George Washington visited the campus in 1797 to visit his two grandnephews who were preparatory students, and took the occasion to address the whole student body.
By 1815, the Society of Jesus had been restored world-wide, Georgetown had become a college of the Society of Jesus, and Congress had granted the College a charter that President James Madison had signed. During Georgetown College’s first century, preparatory students far outnumbered college men on the campus. Georgetown College was primarily a prep school with some college students. In 1855, the “Preparatory Building” (later Maguire Hall), the first structure on campus designated exclusively for use by the preparatory students, was opened.
The highly structured curriculum emphasized study of the classics (Latin and Greek) as a means of disciplining the mind, imbibing the wisdom of the ancients, and developing eloquentia, or facility in speaking and writing. French and English composition were also stressed. Daily Mass, Catholic devotions, student religious organizations such as the Sodality of the Immaculate Conception, recitation of the rosary, three-day student retreats, and the study of the catechism all nurtured the spiritual life of the students. Students in the preparatory school received considerable individual attention from their teachers and prefects, and the school exuded a "homey atmosphere."
Unfortunately, Georgetown College, located in the slave state of Maryland, was also tainted by its involvement with the institution of slavery. The Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus owned enslaved persons who labored on Jesuit-owned farms in southern Maryland and also at the College. In 1838, 272 of those persons were sold to two sugar planters from Louisiana. A portion of the proceedings from that sale was loaned by the Maryland Province to the College in 1838. That loan helped to rescue the College and its preparatory school from external debt that threatened the continued existence of the institution. The enslaved persons who were sold to Louisiana constituted a coerced “endowment of tears” that has been acknowledged by both Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University as they have sought reconciliation with the descendants of those enslaved by the Society of Jesus.
Thirty-five years after the sale of the Maryland slaves, Georgetown College had a rector-president in Patrick F. Healy, S. J., (1873-1882), who was the son of an Irish planter in Georgia and his common law enslaved wife, though Patrick Healy’s African heritage was not widely known by the general public. Eighty years thereafter, in 1953, Georgetown Prep welcomed its first African American student, 7th grade student Anthony A. Pierce, Jr. In 2007, Jeffrey L. Jones was named Prep’s first African American headmaster and served in that capacity until 2015, while also serving as president of the school between 2013 and 2014.
During the Civil War, enrollment plummeted in the College as many students – including those in the Preparatory Department -- left to join the armies of either the Union or the Confederacy. Rev. John Early, S. J., rector-president of the College from 1858-1866, managed, however, to keep the school afloat. He did so in part by cultivating two important members of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet: Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. In 1861-62, Union troops occupied the strategically placed Georgetown campus, which also served as a hospital after the battles of Second Bull Run and Antietam. A little more than a decade after the war’s conclusion, students at Georgetown Visitation Academy presented a banner of blue and gray to the members of the Georgetown College crew team. The young women chose the colors to symbolize the reunion of the states. Blue and Gray subsequently became the colors of both the College and its Preparatory Department.
During the post war era of the 19th century, that Preparatory Department was developing a distinctive identity aided by the rise of team sports such as baseball, football, track, crew and, in 1907, basketball. All of these increased pride and school spirit among the prep students. In the 1899-90 academic year, the College produced a separate catalogue for what it now called, “The Georgetown Preparatory School.”
By the second decade of the 20th century, several factors that had their roots in the 1890s led to the relocation of the Georgetown Preparatory School from the campus of Georgetown University to a site in the Maryland countryside near Garrett Park, Maryland. National accrediting societies were pressuring colleges to separate from their high schools, and Georgetown University authorities, anxious to have Georgetown University join the ranks of the nation’s elite universities, concluded that separating the prep students from the college men would benefit both groups.
In 1915, the College purchased 91.83 acres in Montgomery County as the new site of the Prep school. A generous donation from Henry Walters allowed for the construction of the first building, which was ready for occupancy in 1918. Ironically, however, the first occupants of the oldest Catholic boys’ high school in the nation were . . . women! As part of its efforts to contribute to the war effort during WWI, Georgetown University leased the newly completed Prep building to the Young Women’s Christian Association to house single women who had come to Washington, D.C., to do clerical work for the War Department. Many of the women residents of the first Prep building were United States Marines.
Finally, in September 1919, after 130 years at the Hilltop of Georgetown University, Georgetown Preparatory School opened its doors to receive students at its new location. Georgetown Prep would legally remain part of Georgetown University until 1927, when the two institutions separated into distinct corporations. A new era for Georgetown Preparatory School had begun. That era, in North Bethesda, Maryland, ever grounded in the spirit of St. Ignatius Loyola and the Society of Jesus, offers an education focused on the care of the whole person – mind, body, and soul for the greater Glory of God (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam). Producing men of competence, conscience, courage, and compassion – men for and with others.
Endowment of Tears, Hope for Reconciliation: Georgetown Prep and Slavery
This exhibit is based on documents and illustrations from the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown University, the Georgetown University Archives, the on-line Georgetown Slavery Archive, and the Georgetown Preparatory School Archives. It explores the pivotal role that slavery played in establishing, maintaining, and, through the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved persons owned by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, financially rescuing Georgetown College and its largest constituent element, the Preparatory Department.
The more than 300 men, women, and children enslaved on the Maryland farms and those at Georgetown College constituted a living endowment of tears — coerced benefactors of both Georgetown University and Georgetown Prep. The exhibit focuses on enslaved persons of the same age as current Prep students. It invites the viewer to consider how best to seek reconciliation with the memory of the enslaved and with their descendants. The exhibit also highlights Prep’s first African-American students, Board members, and the late Headmaster, Jeffrey L. Jones, all of whom over the years played trailblazing roles in creating a more open, welcoming, and diverse Prep community that, like our nation, is still a work in progress.
The Gold Star Sons of Georgetown Prep
World War II significantly impacted school life and would draw over 400 alumni into the armed forces.
One of those, Captain Michael J. Daly ’45, received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the battle for Nuremberg, Germany, in April 1945. Daly later recalled that when President Harry S. Truman draped the medal around his neck at the White House on August 23, 1945, he felt a mixture of pride and humility, as well as grief for those he considered the real heroes – “the guys who didn’t come home.” Twelve of those were fellow alumni of Georgetown Prep, who were drawn from classes that spanned the 15 years from 1928 through 1943.
"Gold Star Sons of Georgetown Prep" by Dr. Stephen J. Ochs, Lawler Chair of History, is a captivating piece on those alumni who were among the 407,316 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the "tremendous undertaking" to which Roosevelt had called them.
Captain Michael J. Daly ’45 and President Harry S. Truman