In its early days, the school that would become Georgetown University was funded in part by plantations, and the institution might not even exist today if it weren’t for 272 slaves who were sold to pay off its debts.

A long piece at the New York Times recounts this chapter of the school’s history, as well as modern-day efforts to trace the descendants of those 272 individuals. A number of universities—often under pressure from students and activists—are in the midst of reexamining their own histories, thinking through how to acknowledge their ties to dark moments in America’s past. Several have done detailed projects tracing their involvement with slavery in particular. But Georgetown stands out, because the story is so stark:

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.

Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.

“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery.

University president Father Thomas F. Mulledy “promised his superiors that the slaves would continue to practice their religion. Families would not be separated. And the money raised by the sale would not be used to pay off debt or for operating expenses,” the Times explains. None of that turned out to be true.

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In addition to Rothman’s group, tech CEO and alum Richard J. Cellini has founded the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project in an attempt to trace what happened to those 272 individuals after the sale, as well as to find their descendants. Genealogists have been able to follow the life of one 13-year-old boy, Cornelius Hawkins. He appears in a plantation inventory in 1851, then as a free man in the 1870 census. Because he remained an observant Catholic, researchers were able to follow the trail of records to 69-year-old Maxine Crump.

The question is, where does the university go from here? What does it do with this sort of information? Georgetown has already agreed to take the names of Mulledy and another president involved, the Rev. William McSherry, off campus buildings. Rothman’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,” according to the Times.

Ms. Crump has some ideas:

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.

That seems like the very least Georgetown—which, as of June 30, 2015, had an endowment of around $1.5 billion—could do.


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