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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Gravestone of Cornelius 'Neely' Hawkins, one of the slaves in the Georgetown University's 1838 slave sale, in Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Cemetery in Maringouin, La., Thursday, June 30, 2016.

Travis Spradling

Georgetown University plans a series of in-person meetings in Louisiana and other parts of the country with descendants of the 272 slaves that were sold by the Washington D.C.-based school in 1838 to raise money to prevent it from closing. 

A memo sent to descendants, dated Friday, says university officials hope to collaborate with descendants on principles that willl guide Georgetown's long-term initiatives in addressing the sale. 

"Over the past few years, we have been deeply engaged in work to better understand our institution's relationship to slavery and the responsibilities we have today to grapple with the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination in our nation," the university's President John DeGioia said in a letter accompanying the memo.

The series of meetings won't be the first time university officials have reached out to the descendants of the 272. DeGioia first met with some of them in July 2016 during a visit to Louisiana. The descendants were later visited again in April 2017 to share ideas about reconciliation with leaders from the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church.   

Jesuit priests running the institution that would later become Georgetown University sold the 272 enslaved men, women and children in 1838 to settle mounting debts that could have forced the institution to shut down. The slaves ended up in Louisiana, mostly working at plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes.

The Georgetown sale gained national attention in the spring of 2016 after The New York Times tracked down and interviewed scores of descendants for a series of articles. Those articles sparked a national discussion on the ripple effects slavery had on black families and the nation's economy. The media attention also revealed the unexpected roles religious and educational institutions had in the slave trade.

Karran Harper-Royal, executive director of the GU272 Descendants Association, said the more than 970 members of her organization are looking forward to the meetings. She said it will finally give them a chance to be apart of a conversation that has been mostly driven by the university since news of the sale broke. 

"We need to do what it takes to work with Georgetown to honor our ancestors," Harper-Royal said. "We're in it for the long haul. And we'll push through whatever pain we need to."

The GU272 Descendants Association is one of several grassroots organizations that have formed within the past year in response to the sale. The GU272 Association, based in Baton Rouge, for the past year has worked to connect descendants across the country. 

In its recent memo to the descendants, Georgetown is asking for feedback on a set of principles they can work on together toward making amends for the sale and for the university's involvement in the slave trade. 

The university has already began granting legacy status during the admission process to descendants of the 272 — something that was previously available only to members of the school's faculty and staff. 

Since news of the sale broke, the university has also hosted a large group of the descendants at the campus for special events. In April 2017, Georgetown renamed two campus buildings — one after a 272 descendant and the other after a black. female 19th-century educator. 

The university is hoping the meetings with descendants this year will help guide the rest of its future projects addressing its history to the American slave trade. 

"These conversations have reinforced the importance of building a strong and lasting framework for dialogue, partnership and collaboration among descendants, Georgetown and the Jesuits," DeGioia wrote in his letter about the University's latest outreach effort. "While this work will unfold over many years, we continue in this effort with a sense of urgency and purpose."  

  

   

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.