A group of students at Gonzaga College High School in D.C. will soon unveil an exhibit dedicated to a painful past. It chronicles the school’s use of slaves.
Seven of the Jesuit high school's students signed up for the project two years ago and did countless hours of research on their own time.
“To set aside all the fun stuff over the summer and focus on something that was important for not just me, but for the whole school,” senior Hameed Nelson said.
The group took many trips to Georgetown University after school and during the summer to work with professors for their research. They uncovered firsthand documents and other accounts of slavery connected with their school. Gonzaga was once part of Georgetown University when it was known as the Washington Seminary.
“It was overwhelmingly clear over the course of our research that if there hadn’t been enslaved labor that worked at plantations, the Washington Seminary may well have never started,” senior Danny Podratsky said.
In 2016, Georgetown University and its Jesuit leadership revealed its own connection to slavery. A few months later, the university apologized to the living descendants of slaves who were sold to keep the university running.
“This history's not easy. Much of it’s ugly. We haven’t sugarcoated it,” Gonzaga history teacher Ed Donnellan said.
“I think the fact that it’s uncomfortable makes it all the more important that we’re looking into this now,” Podratsky said.
Donnellan said the project began when Georgetown’s connection to slavery provoked a student to ask, "What was Gonzaga’s tie to slavery?"
He suggested the students uncover the answer.
“From what the archivists at Georgetown tell us, this is PhD-level work,” Donnellan.
The academic quest turned personal.
“And you start to feel a connection to these slaves as you track them through a book for hours and hours,” senior Keegan Grealish said.
The students identified five slaves who worked at the school.
One of them named Gabriel.
“I think we’ve said from the start that Gabriel feels like our first Gonzaga Brother. We talk about the brotherhood here at Gonzaga, and it’s very powerful,” Podratsky said.
“In that way, we kind of are his family. We’re that people who are remembering him and trying to resurrect him from the books of history,” senior Matt Johnson said.
The students will officially unveil the exhibit during a ceremony in the school's common area on Sunday.