In the early 1830s, Georgetown University was running out of money. To raise funds, two Jesuit priests in charge sold one of their most valuable assets—272 slaves. Enslaved men, women, and children had toiled on the campus for generations, and constructed many of its iconic buildings.
The decision had far-reaching consequences.
On an autumn day in 1838, amid a flurry of chaos, the slaves were separated, and 130 were forced onto the Katharine Jackson, a vessel bound for a port near New Orleans.
The documentation of that journey and other aspects of the sale was buried in the archives by the Jesuits for generations.
In Louisiana, these slaves and the generations that followed gradually lost touch with the basic facts that had brought them to the Deep South. Their personal histories were lost. But clues remained. Many celebrated the Catholic faith. Some carried the middle name Georgetown. Others passed down the first names of slaves and the knowledge that they came from Maryland.
The story of the Georgetown 272 eventually came back to light. In 2015, following campus demonstrations, the alumnus Richard Cellini created the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project to identify the descendants of the slaves.
Meanwhile administrators, faculty, and students at Georgetown University and Louisiana State University have also been engaged with the descendants and their communities by creating podcasts, and collecting oral histories and other documentation.
To date, more than 1,000 living descendants have been identified by the Georgetown Memory Project. One group lives in Maringouin, La., about 100 miles west of New Orleans. In February of 2017, some of these individuals gathered in Rosedale, La., to share their stories. We followed up with six men and women to find out how the efforts by the universities to make them aware of the Georgetown 272 affected their lives.
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American colleges are in a unique position, both practically and morally, to do justice to their own history of slavery.
The university’s effort to make amends for its past stands out for its scope, experts say, even though other universities may not be in a position to take similar steps.
Institutions like Georgetown University are going beyond markers and memorials in acknowledging their historical ties to slavery, even weighing reparations to descendants.