January 30, 2024


When author and journalist Rachel L. Swarns speaks at Heritage Hall on Feb. 1, it will be her first time visiting campus since she was a fellow for the Institute for Policy Research more than a decade ago.

She said it was a transformational time for her as she began researching slavery's lasting impact on American culture.

"I'm so grateful for the support and I'm just so happy to be coming back," Swarns said. "It really helped me on this journey I've been on."

Swarns, an associate professor at New York University and Former New York Times Johannesburg Bureau Chief, will focus on her critically acclaimed book, “The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church.” 

Swarns will provide attendees with an exploration of the historical narrative surrounding the American Catholic Church’s origin and its enduring impact on the families involved. 

In advance of the appearance, Swarns answered questions about how her faith and the book coincided, encountering resistance to telling the story and what she hoped people would take away from the talk.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As a Catholic, how have you processed your relationship to elements in this book?

Rachel Swarns: I got started on this, not because of my Catholicism. We got a tip about it. It ended up coming to me, from a colleague who didn't know what to make of this pitch of a 19th-century slave sale without even a story. She knew about my work. In my first book, I examined how slavery shaped American families. I knew immediately this felt like something I really love to explore because it feels like the next step.. how slavery affected institutions. 

I don't write commentary. I write news, I write news features. I write narrative stuff, but it's not about me.

And after the first story ran in April 2016, an editor said, “Oh, you know, of course, you're going to write about how you're Black and Catholic. Of course, doing the work in the back of my own head, I am wrestling with this. I was persuaded that I should write about this. And I did write a piece for the Times about this when the book came out in June (of 2023). It has been an interesting experience. I am a practicing Catholic. And I come from a family where Catholicism is really important. And at the same time, I was learning about this very difficult, awful, terrible history. I felt conflicted in a number of ways. This was a very difficult history. And I was researching it and because of the kind of writing that I do, really putting myself in the moment, so really feeling a lot of this stuff.

The story of these families, so many of them remained Catholic, even when they had a choice, even when thousands of Black people left the Catholic Church after the war.

I know that many became lay leaders, some even became religious leaders. They really worked to make the Church more reflective, and responsive to Black Catholics.

Why did they do that?

Swarns: I often say that they believed that the Church was bigger than these sinful men who did these things, that the Church belongs to them, too. I grew up in an Italian American, largely Irish American church. I suddenly felt like I had a kind of connection, a deep kind of connection to the church, even though it was born on this painful, terrible history that I hadn't had before. So it's a little bit complicated. It's been interesting. because I can't tell you how many non-Catholics sometimes want to grab me by the shoulders and say, ‘How can you still be Catholic?  How can you still do this?’ I gave a talk at the University of Michigan (recently). The thing that I say to people is, “Where would I go?” Baptists enslaved people, Episcopalians, I mean, this was, this is America. Even the Quakers enslaved people. Sometimes I laugh a little bit when people want to say, ‘Oh, you should leave the Catholic Church?’ Well, no.

Some people have had difficulty confronting the past. Have you experienced that with this book?

Swarns: There are folks who just really want to shut the door, right? So there's kind of a hard history. I'm not a historian, I'm a journalist, I work in history. I think about the audience and I think about how you reach people. And I think there are people for whom this is a difficult history. There are people who are willing to hear even though it's difficult, maybe open the door and then there are people who just don't want to know. I often ask myself, ‘Why isn't this something that is more widely known? Why have enslaved people been left out of the origin story that is traditionally told about the Catholic Church?

How did you start doing the reporting?

Swarns: I'm a journalist and I think about the audience, so thinking about slavery and American audiences, there are always people who kind of might say, ‘Oh, wait, that has nothing to do with me.’ I don't need to hear about this. So how do you bring someone into the story? When this tip came to us, we knew that these 272 people were sold. This Georgetown alum had established a nonprofit that was trying to find descendants. And I found a handful, maybe like three or four at that time, and I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I'm going to try to bring in 272 people or so or I'm going to focus on one.’ So quickly, a 13-year-old being put on the ship and being sent to this faraway place, I felt that maybe it was a way to bring people in. I am interested in history, but I'm interested in how you live with it now.  I had some familiarity with the kind of records that are available. It’s very difficult to find anything about enslaved people, because, by law, and by practice, most were barred from learning to read and write. It took some time. And I always thought the book was supposed to take two years, and it took seven years. It actually was really helpful because I ended up having more time to think.

What is your goal for audiences?

Swarns: I want people to understand the connections between slavery in contemporary institutions, I want them to understand that this is not this kind of long ago thing and a ‘nothing to do with me’ thing and that it’s deeply a part of who we are, and the institutions around us right now. I would like these people to be known, and their stories to be told.

Those are the things that are important to me. I can write about it. The book is out there. But I also feel like there's a way in which being out there personally talking about slavery, talking about the research, maybe makes it resonate with people a little more in a kind of more intimate way.

Laura Masur, an assistant professor of anthropology, takes University students to Sacred Heart Chapel in Bowie, Md., to clear brush at the parish’s cemetery, which is the final resting place for enslaved, free and White persons.  The students marked potential gravesites with flags for further research. (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

Are you aware of the work being done by professor Laura Masur and her students?

Swarns: I cited her in my book, in my notes, and my bibliography. We've never met. We've seen each other on social media. Her work is amazing. There are a couple of the articles that she wrote that were just super, super helpful.

When you see various institutions, Catholic or others, looking at the past and reckoning with it, what do you think?

Swarns: It’s so great. It's a hard history, but it's our history. We have to grapple with it. It's so important to grapple with it. I sometimes marvel at how much has happened since my first story ran.