Georgetown Reckons With Slave Trading Past

By Sameer Rao Apr 18, 2016

At the height of last fall’s nationwide anti-racism campus activism, Georgetown University students compelled school officials to rename buildings named after past presidents who sold 272 slaves to pay off institutional debts. A new article from The New York Times details a collaborative investigation of that slave sale.

The piece, which ran on Saturday (April 16), highlights the efforts of a working group—made up of scholars, students and alumni—to examine the history surrounding the 1838 sale and identify descendants of the slaves. For instance, the following passage details how one slave’s descendant first learned about her heritage from a Georgetown alumnus involved in geneaology research efforts:

Ms. Crump, a retired television news anchor, was driving to Maringouin, her hometown, in early February when her cellphone rang. Mr. Cellini was on the line.

She listened, stunned, as he told her about her great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Hawkins, who had labored on a plantation just a few miles from where she grew up.

She found out about the Jesuits and Georgetown and the sea voyage to Louisiana. And she learned that Cornelius had worked the soil of a 2,800-acre estate that straddled the Bayou Maringouin.

All of this was new to Ms. Crump, except for the name Cornelius—or Neely, as Cornelius was known.

The name had been passed down from generation to generation in her family. Her great-uncle had the name, as did one of her cousins. Now, for the first time, Ms. Crump understood its origins.

"Oh my God," she said. "Oh my God."

Another passage details how the working group and Ms. Crump handle the question of what restitution the university should offer the families of those slaves:

Meanwhile, Georgetown’s working group has been weighing whether the university should apologize for profiting from slave labor, create a memorial to those enslaved and provide scholarships for their descendants, among other possibilities, said Dr. Rothman, the historian.

"It’s hard to know what could possibly reconcile a history like this," he said. "What can you do to make amends?"

Ms. Crump, 69, has been asking herself that question, too. She does not put much stock in what she describes as "casual institutional apologies." But she would like to see a scholarship program that would bring the slaves’ descendants to Georgetown as students.

And she would like to see Cornelius’s name, and those of his parents and children, inscribed on a memorial on campus.

Read the story in full here.