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Free Author Event

Rachel L. Swarns with The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the Catholic Church

Tuesday, January 30, 6-7 p.m. ET

Presented by American Inspiration Author Series and the Boston Public Library 
Moderator: Stephanie McCurry

“An absolutely essential addition to the history of the Catholic Church, whose involvement in New World slavery sustained the Church and, thereby, helped to entrench enslavement in American society.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello and On Juneteenth

In 1838, a group of America’s most prominent Catholic priests sold 272 enslaved people to save their largest mission project, what is now Georgetown University. In this groundbreaking account, journalist, author, and professor Rachel L. Swarns follows one family through nearly two centuries of indentured servitude and enslavement to uncover the harrowing origin story of the Catholic Church in the United States. Through the saga of the Mahoney family, she demonstrates how slavery fueled the growth of the American Catholic Church and shines a light on the enslaved people whose forced labor helped to build the largest denomination in the nation. She’ll be joined by historian Stephanie McCurry for this riveting and important conversation about The 272.

Rachel L. Swarns is a journalism professor at New York University and a contributing writer for The New York Times, where she served as a reporter and correspondent for 22 years. At NYU, she focuses on American slavery and its contemporary legacies. She is the author of The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church; American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama and a co-author of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives. Her work has been recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Biographers International Organization, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, the MacDowell artist residency program, and others. In 2023, she was elected to the Society of American Historians. Her website is

Stephanie McCurry is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University. She teaches and writes about the nineteenth century United States, the Civil War and Emancipation, and women’s and gender history. Stephanie is the author of three prize winning books: Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War. She is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library where she is working on a new book about the post-Civil War United States. Her website is

Our Special Thanks to American Inspiration Series Sponsors Susan K. and John D. Thompson