Why you should care
Because they are owed a debt.
Adam Lewis is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on social justice and global health.
Georgetown University recently acknowledged its historical role in slavery, offering preferential admissions status to descendants of 272 slaves it sold in 1838. Along with other measures, Georgetown updated its admissions policy to give the same advantage to the slaves’ descendants as it grants alumni, faculty and other “members of the Georgetown community.” While it is one of many U.S. institutions that was built and funded — at least in part — on the kidnapping, forced labor and sale of Black men and women, according to Richard Cellini, the Georgetown alumnus who spearheaded an independent search for the descendants, the school is one of the first to explore reconciliation beyond nominal changes and lip service.
The move highlights a critical need in bids to address reparations: As America grapples with whether and how to pay, this approach overlooks the fraught but essential process of identifying the unnamed victims and piecing together the family histories of millions of Black Americans living with and, in some cases, still suffering from the legacy of the country’s early sin.
The problem is, we … are focusing more on the extent of our guilt than on finding the victims.
Since Georgetown’s announcement, nearly 600 descendants have asked the school to do more, revealing that they were denied participation in its Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which recommended the reforms. The descendants want to work with Georgetown to create a charitable foundation, the specifics of which they would determine together. To date, however, Georgetown’s only response to the descendants’ proposal has been, “We look forward to engaging with the group and learning more about their work.”
It’s no surprise that Georgetown struggles to evaluate its debt, but perhaps it’s asking the wrong questions. As a descendant of slave owners and a beneficiary of slave labor myself, I’ve had trouble quantifying exactly how much I alone have benefited. According to 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules, my great-great-great-great-grandfather owned 14 slaves in Mississippi; 125 years later, I inherited both the blood and, in many ways, the status of a Mississippi slaveholder. Is it possible to ascertain the value of the bondage, toil and suffering from which my family profited?
The problem is, we — my family, Georgetown and millions of white Americans — are focusing more on the extent of our guilt than on finding the victims. “History only answers the questions you ask her,” says Cellini. According to him, no one was willing to ask questions initially. “A senior member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation told me that all 272 [slaves] had succumbed to a rare fever on the Louisiana plantation to which they were sold. That didn’t make sense,” Cellini says, noting that there had to be more. He started the Georgetown Memory Project to begin looking for descendants.
Already on a similar quest of my own, I reached out to Cellini to learn about his search. From what I could tell, antebellum slave documents only included age, sex and skin color, while some proprietary documents, like wills and deeds, runaway slave ads and insurance registries, contained a bit more information. But full names and addresses were hard to find, and it wasn’t until the Civil War ended that Congress began compiling labor contract data on African-Americans by name. Connecting the dots between slaves and owners, then, is exceedingly difficult. Or so I thought.
“Online records offer very little by way of slave identities,” Cellini says. So he turned to genealogists. “Courthouses and churches have vast archives of written files on slaves,” he notes, explaining that shipping agents, insurance companies and military pension lists also offer clues. “As awful as it sounds,” he says, “it was important back then to keep track of expensive property.”
In Georgetown’s case, the slaves were baptized by the Jesuits and remained committed Catholics after they were shipped to Louisiana. The archdiocese of New Orleans has all sorts of sacramental documents — funeral, baptism and marriage records — with invaluable information, including life cycle data and precious family histories. Using this information as a starting point, the Georgetown Memory Project has identified 210 of the 272 slaves the university sold, amounting to thousands of descendants with no previous knowledge of their lineage, and Cellini is confident they’ll soon have details on the remaining 62.
But then what? Does Georgetown owe more than an adjusted entrance policy and memorial? After all, many of the descendants live in a town whose per capita income hovers below $11,000. And for my ancestors’ role, do I owe more than an article? The answer to both is indisputably yes, but the process is unquestionably messy. That’s why one Georgetown descendant, 54-year-old New Orleans resident Sandra Green Thomas, believes that “recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary.” And with meaningful participation should come better data.
There are thousands of companies, colleges, churches, courthouses and family archives with records of immeasurable worth to African-American families — hidden-but-not-lost relics of unpaid wages, unknown relatives, unrequited love and untold American history. In our search for justice, the evidence is there, we just have to look.