Rachel Swarns, New York Times correspondent and author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, addressed the Georgetown Prep student body, faculty and staff on January 11 at a full school assembly. In April 2016, Ms. Swarms wrote the New York Times' story "272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?"
Ms. Swarns discussed how the story came to the New York Times and her journeys to Louisiana to speak with descendants of the "272." At the time of the sale of the 272 enslaved people in 1838, Georgetown College (now University) and what is now Georgetown Preparatory School were the same institution. Ms. Swarns spoke on the continued dialogue her story was able to start and how the discussion still continues.
During her address to the Prep student body, faculty and staff, Ms. Swarns said, "There are opportunities for you guys, too, to go to the archives and to look at the history of the institution that you are involved in. The stories of these people, Cornelius and the others, were lost for a long time but I think that you guys here, students and faculty can play a really important role in unearthing these stories and showing how these young people, these men, woman, and children played an important role in the proud and prosperous institution that you are all connected to." She added, "These conversations are raw and hard and difficult but they are so important in understanding the country that we live in and who we are as Americans."
Prep's Headmaster, John Glennon Jr., noted on Ms. Swarns' address, "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. Our school-wide focus this year on Prep's earlier involvement with slavery is part of that larger conversation and of Pope Francis' call for a year of reconciliation. We are deeply grateful to Ms. Swarns for the key role she played in initiating this period of reflection here at Prep."
As part of Prep's Year of Reconciliation, the school hosted discussions, presentations, and speakers to address the year's theme. Dr. Stephen Ochs, Lawler Chair of History, spoke to the Prep community on November 13 about the connection between Georgetown Prep and the sale in 1838 of 272 enslaved people by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. On November 27, the second presentation by Dr. Ochs and Prep students was made to the student body, faculty and staff focusing on the centrality of slavery at Prep between 1789 and 1838.
Georgetown Prep will continue the discussion through the winter and spring with presentations and speakers in line with this year's theme of reconciliation.
Ms. Swarns is the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, published in June 2012. American Tapestry was ranked as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012 by The NYT Book Review and as one of the "year's outstanding books for public library collections" by Booklist. She is also a co-author of "Unseen: Unpublished Black History from The New York Times Photo Archives,'' which was published in October 2017. Currently, she is researching a book on the Georgetown 272 and their descendants. Ms. Swarns is an academic advisor to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., is launching an exhibit based on her book about Michelle Obama's ancestors. This year, she will join the faculty at New York University, where she will serve as an associate professor of journalism.
Photo: Tianyang Wang '21