The tale of Georgetown University's 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people to Louisiana plantations offers "a microcosm of the whole history of slavery" in America, the school's historian says.
Adam Rothman, a history professor and the school's historian, was one of several speakers at a recent event at the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
He and other scholars, along with descendants of the Georgetown slaves, participated in a panel discussion titled "Sold South: Tracing a Jesuit Slave Community from Maryland to Louisiana."
They view the sale as a snapshot of how the country built its wealth through the persecution of black people and how it fostered a legacy of privilege for their oppressors.
"It's a big history to wrap your head around," Rothman said. "But looking at this one community and the families connected is a microcosm of the whole history of slavery. Just to find a college so deeply rooted in the slaveholding economy shows how many ways slavery shaped the American economy."
The Jesuit leaders running the institution that would later become Georgetown University sold the 272 enslaved men, women and children in 1838 to settle mounting debts threatening the school's closure.
Rothman said the Jesuits saw the sale as a way to somewhat absolve themselves from the scandal slavery had become for the religious leaders whose morality was under scrutiny at the time because of their involvement.
The Georgetown sale marked one of the first instances of slavery in America which the slaves were sold as families and not ripped apart as was common in the era, according to speakers on the "Sold South" panel.
The Georgetown slaves ended up in Louisiana, mostly working at plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes. The sale is a marked contrast to what has often been reported about slave sales that normally involved individuals being auctioned off to affluent plantation owners instead of entire families or communities.
News of the sale reached national prominence this spring after a series of articles by The New York Times revealed scores of descendants of the slaves were still living in Louisiana and scattered throughout various parts of the country.
Many have since discovered their roots and their connections to the prestigious university, sparking conversations like the one last week at Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
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In addition to Rothman, those sitting on the panel to discuss Georgetown's part in the slave trade included descendants of those slaves, among them two women who recently discovered their families' connection to Georgetown, Sandra Green Thomas and Cheryllyn Branche.
Branche is the descendant of Henny and Hillary Ford and their son Basil. Thomas' ancestors Sam and Betsy Ware Harris were among the 272 slaves, too.
The panel was moderated by Raphael Cassimere, a historian at the University of New Orleans.
Through painstaking genealogy work done by the Georgetown Memory Project, a nonprofit organization, descendants have uncovered surprising connections over the past seven months which has turned strangers and casual acquaintances into family.
The intricately webbed family trees created by the inter-community marriages between the Georgetown slaves after they arrived in Louisiana — and maintained long after their emancipation — presents a different narrative that Cassimere says has often not been explored in the context of slavery.
"One of the myths we have about slavery was its biggest tragedy was the disruption of slave families, and we now know that's not true," he said in reference to the Georgetown sale.
Since national news broke about the 1838 sale, the university has made strides to rectify its involvement. Many of those efforts were called into question during the panel discussion.
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In September, the university's president, John DeGioia, announced slave descendants would be granted preferential admission and possibly financial assistance to attend Georgetown as a form of reparations.
The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, a group DeGioia assembled to determine how the university should respond to its past involvement in the slave trade, also suggested the university involve descendants in an oral history project and issue a formal apology for its participation and benefit from the slave trade.
"The university community...has been overwhelmingly positive with everything we're trying to do," said Rothman, who serves on the Working Group.
But Thomas highlighted that "financial help" will likely involve loans.
"So it's not a free education," she said. "I see Georgetown as belonging to me and my family. Until you realize the humanity of black people and what we've contributed to this nation ... we're still going to have the inequalities that exist today."
Thomas serves as the president of GU272 Descendant Association, a newly formed group that wants to support the goals, objectives and aspirations of all the descendants.
A different organization, the GU272 Foundation, is another descendant-led charitable group that has asked the university to help its members raise $1 billion to support the educational aspirations of slave descendants.
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Both groups want a seat at the table of any discussions regarding the university's endeavors to reconcile its past with slavery.
Branche, a retired principal of St. Katherine Drexel Preparatory School in New Orleans and vice president of the association group, said she appreciates the university's forthright attitude in addressing its slavery-tainted past. She also pointed out that other institutions have also admitted their involvement and how they benefited from slavery.
"Many older people in my family feel energized by the knowledge," she said. "For us to have this dialogue face-to-face gives us the opportunity to try and commit to cleansing and being whole. We've offered (Georgetown) the opportunity for a collaborative effort. We hope they will accept."