For a few more hours, today is Father’s Day, and tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of my own father’s death. Donald Leon was not an easy man to get to know–not much of a talker and extremely focused on his work. For the past few years I’ve struggled with how to mark his passing, especially as it usually falls so close to Father’s Day. So, yesterday, without a real plan in mind, I got in the car and started to drive toward Southern Maryland. My Dad was born and raised in Bethesda, but my grandmother’s family, the Wildmans, came from St Mary’s County. As a boy, he and his brothers would spend the summer in Leonardtown, sailing and enjoying the water. I’ve never done the work it would take to put together a proper family history, but my understanding is that there are roots through the Wildman family to the enormous clan of Mattinglys who settled in St. Mary’s County well prior to the American Revolution.
As I made my way down Route 5 toward the tip of the St. Mary’s peninsula, I was reminded that although I have only the most vague sense of my family history in this farm land, I have a much more developed sense of the Catholic and slaveholding history of this place. Though I am by no means an historian of Early America, or of slavery, I spent a good deal time as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student trying to puzzle out the human contradictions of this past. Before and after those years plenty of scholars, most of them Jesuits themselves, have written about these men of God and their slaves. (See my Zotero collection.)
During my first semester as an American Studies student at Georgetown University in the mid-1990s, I’d been introduced to disturbing fact that the early Jesuits who had founded the school owned six plantations in Maryland where they own nearly 300 enslaved Africans. During those years, the American Studies program was engaged in an experiment with digitization and transcription, using subsequent classes of students to grow a digital archive called The Jesuit Plantation Project. The site is in somewhat of a state of disrepair and the metadata on the documents is lacking, but the contents represented my first introduction to this research.
When the first settlers arrived in the area in 1634, included among the them were two Jesuit priests and four slaves. By the 1800s, the Jesuits were firmly established in Maryland and had founded Georgetown College (1789). But, with no support from a local diocesan system–there really wasn’t one yet –, the Jesuits were farmers like everyone else and they used their farms to support their spiritual and educational mission.
In 1815, Br. Joseph Mobberly, who managed the farm and slaves at St. Inigoe’s plantation, wrote to the president of Georgetown College counseling that it would be best to sell or free the slaves, arguing “It is better to sell for a time, or to get your people free—1st Because we have their souls to answer for—2nd Because Blacks are more difficult to govern now, than formerly—-and 3rd Because we shall make more & more to our satisfaction” (Mobberly to Grassi, MPA, 204k3, February 15, 1815.) When I made my first visit yesterday to what is left of St. Inigoe’s–St. Ignatius chapel and a cemetery–I was again returned to my puzzlement over the slaveholding Jesuits. Mobberly’s reasons for ending Jesuit slaveholding illuminated the dramatically compromised situation in which the members of the Society of Jesus found themselves. He claimed to be concerned about the spiritual welfare of the people he managed and corporately owned. He also seemed to have no grasp of why those enslaved people would be hard to govern. The raw facts of the economics made the most sense to him; if the Jesuits used hired hands instead of keeping slaves, they would save almost $400 a month.
Eventually, the Society of Jesus agreed with Mobberly that the slaves needed to go–though, not through emancipation. In 1838, the Jesuits sold their 272 slaves to a buyer in Louisiana. The sale brought them nearly $60,000 and relieved them of immediate responsibility for the families who sailed South. Though there were conditions laid out prior to the sale that required guarantees that families would be kept intact, and that the slaves would continue to be able to practice their religion. The hollowness of these conditions should have been immediately clear, but they came back to the Jesuits in print when in 1848 Rev’d Van de Velde wrote with concern about the conditions he witnessed in Louisiana. But, by then, they exercised no real control over the situation.
Revisiting these disturbing exchanges fifteen years after I first read them as an undergraduate makes me wonder if it might be time to find out more about the Mattinglys and Wildmans. I could think of less good ways to get to know my father than to learn how his relatives, who were neighbors of these mission Jesuits, fit into the world of early nineteenth century St. Mary’s County.