Book Review of The 272


“The 272” by Rachel L. Swarns is a compelling and meticulously crafted exploration into a dark and often overlooked chapter of American history. Through meticulous research, poignant storytelling, and deep empathy, Swarns invites readers on a journey through time to confront the haunting legacy of slavery at Georgetown University. In this comprehensive review, we will delve into the intricate layers of Swarns’ narrative, examining its historical significance, its portrayal of the human experience, and its implications for contemporary discussions on race, memory, and justice.

Historical Context:

Swarns situates “The 272” within the broader historical context of American slavery, tracing its roots from the transatlantic slave trade to the institutionalization of slavery in the United States. She meticulously documents the complicity of institutions like Georgetown University in perpetuating the brutal system of chattel slavery, highlighting the ways in which slavery shaped the economic, social, and moral fabric of the nation.

Central Narrative:

At the heart of “The 272” lies the story of the 272 enslaved individuals sold by the Jesuits of Georgetown University in 1838 to alleviate the institution’s financial debts. Swarns painstakingly reconstructs their lives, drawing on archival documents, personal testimonies, and genealogical research to give voice to the voiceless and humanize those whose stories have been relegated to the margins of history.

Through vivid and evocative storytelling, Swarns introduces readers to a diverse cast of characters—from the enslaved men, women, and children who were uprooted from their homes and communities, to the Jesuit priests who justified their actions through religious rhetoric and moral ambiguity. She explores the complexities of power, privilege, and complicity, challenging readers to confront the uncomfortable truths of America’s past and reckon with its enduring legacies.

Themes and Analysis:

“The 272” explores a myriad of themes, including memory, trauma, identity, and justice. Swarns deftly navigates the complexities of memory and remembrance, illuminating the ways in which the legacies of slavery continue to shape individual and collective consciousness. She invites readers to grapple with questions of responsibility and accountability, urging us to confront the uncomfortable truths of our shared history and actively engage in the work of reconciliation and reparations.

Through her meticulous research and sensitive portrayal of the descendants of the 272, Swarns highlights the resilience and agency of those whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the actions of their ancestors and the institutions that perpetuated their suffering. She challenges readers to bear witness to their stories, to listen with empathy and compassion, and to recognize the humanity and dignity of every individual affected by slavery’s enduring legacy.

Contemporary Relevance:

“The 272” is more than just a historical account; it is a powerful call to action—a reminder that the wounds inflicted by centuries of slavery cannot be healed through silence or indifference. Swarns challenges readers to confront the ongoing realities of racial injustice in America, to acknowledge the ways in which privilege and power continue to shape our society, and to actively work towards a more just and equitable future for all.


In conclusion, “The 272” by Rachel L. Swarns is a tour de force of investigative journalism, historical scholarship, and empathetic storytelling. Through her compelling narrative, Swarns shines a light on the untold stories of the enslaved individuals and their descendants, urging us to confront the uncomfortable truths of our past and actively engage in the work of building a more inclusive and equitable society. This book is a testament to the enduring power of storytelling to illuminate the darkest corners of history and inspire meaningful change. It is essential reading for anyone committed to understanding the complexities of race, memory, and identity in America.

Strengths of the Book:

  • Compelling Narrative: The book goes beyond dry historical facts by weaving personal stories into the narrative. Swarns allows the voices of the enslaved and their descendants to come alive, fostering empathy and understanding for their suffering.
  • Extensive Research: The book is meticulously researched, drawing upon historical documents, letters, and genealogical records. Swarns provides a comprehensive picture of the context surrounding the sale of the 272, including the financial pressures on Georgetown University and the brutal realities of life under slavery.
  • Focus on Legacy and Reparations: “The 272” doesn’t shy away from the contemporary issues arising from historical injustices. Swarns investigates the efforts of the GU272 descendants to seek acknowledgment and reparations from the university, sparking important conversations about accountability and healing.

Weaknesses of the Book:

  • Limited Scope: While the focus on the Mahoney family offers a personal lens, it might limit the book’s exploration of the broader experience of enslaved people at Georgetown and beyond.
  • Emotional Difficulty: The subject matter is inherently difficult and can be emotionally taxing for some readers.


“The 272” is a powerful and necessary contribution to American history. It serves as a stark reminder of the sins of the past and raises crucial questions about ongoing societal issues related to race, religion, and the legacies of slavery. Swarns’ powerful storytelling and insightful analysis make this book a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of American history and the ongoing quest for justice and reconciliation.

Writing Style:

Swarns combines rigorous historical research with compassionate storytelling. Her prose is clear, evocative, and respectful. She avoids sensationalism, allowing the facts and emotions to speak for themselves.


“The 272” challenges readers to confront uncomfortable truths about America’s past. It invites us to engage in conversations about reparations, systemic racism, and the importance of acknowledging historical injustices.

Final Thoughts:

Rachel L. Swarns has crafted a remarkable work that transcends mere historical documentation. “The 272” is a call to action—a plea for understanding, empathy, and justice. It reminds us that the past is not distant; it shapes our present and future. This book is essential reading for anyone seeking to grapple with the complexities of America’s past and present.

Additional Notes:

  • The book has sparked national conversations about universities with ties to slavery, prompting some institutions to take steps towards acknowledging their past and engaging with descendants of enslaved people.
  • “The 272” offers a valuable resource for educators, researchers, and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the history of slavery in the United States.

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