This week New York Times journalist Rachel Swarns published a formidable piece of journalism on how Georgetown University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, was saved by the sale of 272 slaves in the early 1800s.
Swarns, best known for her book on Michelle Obama’s ancestry, American Tapestry, wrote movingly about the devastating details of the 1838 sale: “[N]o one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.”
The 1838 sale, which was organized by Jesuit priests who founded and ran Georgetown College (slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners), would be worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars. The money was used to help to pay off the debts of the struggling school, which later became Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University.
The slaves, who were held by the priests and Catholic Church on a plantation in Maryland, were sold to various plantations in Deep South Louisiana, where families were broken up and the enslaved were treated more harshly.
The Times reports that student demonstrations at Georgetown in the fall helped give new urgency to the administration’s efforts to find the descendants of the slaves and figure out a way to make things right.
Georgetown alumni, students, faculty and genealogists have come together to find some of the descendants of those slaves sold so long ago, and suggestions for reparations to them include everything from erecting prominent markers on campus (the two college presidents who sold the slaves will have their names removed from buildings at the school) to establishing scholarships for their descendants.
Read more at the New York Times.