One of the most important and compelling articles I’ve ever read about slavery, reparations, and genealogy, documenting Georgetown University’s Search for Slave Descendants,
is on the front page of the New York Times this morning.

In the fall of 1838, two of Georgetown’s Jesuit priests
arranged for the sale of 272 human beings owned by the university.

The slaves worked on a Maryland plantation and their labors supplied Georgetown with cash. When the plantation was no longer profitable, the university’s leaders arranged to sell most of the slaves, who were sent to New Orleans for auction.

An inspector scrutinized the “cargo” on Dec. 6, 1838. “Examined and found correct,” he wrote of Cornelius and the 129 other people he found on the ship.

The notation betrayed no hint of the turmoil on board. But priests at the Jesuit plantations recounted the panic and fear they witnessed when the slaves departed.

Some children were sold without their parents, records show, and enslaved African-Americans were “dragged off by force to the ship,” the Rev. Thomas Lilly reported. Others, including two of Cornelius’s uncles, ran away before they could be captured.

But few were lucky enough to escape. The Rev. Peter Havermans wrote of an elderly woman who fell to her knees, begging to know what she had done to deserve such a fate, according to Robert Emmett Curran, a retired Georgetown historian who described eyewitness accounts of the sale in his research. Cornelius’s extended family was split, with his aunt Nelly and her daughters shipped to one plantation, and his uncle James and his wife and children sent to another, records show.

The ship manifest of the Katharine Jackson, available in full at the Georgetown Slavery archive, listed the name, sex, age and height of each slave transported to New Orleans in the fall of 1838. It showed that the cargo included dozens of children, among them infants as young as 2 months old.

Georgetown University's Search for Slave Descendants

The bill of sale states: “Thomas F. Mulledy sells to Jesse Beatty and Henry Johnson two hundred and seventy two negroes, to wit.” A payment plan, with discounts if the slaves turned out to be more infirm than described, is also noted. (Maryland Province Archives at Lauinger Library at Georgetown University)

Now genealogists and historians and archivists and descendants are working together to find the families of those who were sold to keep the university solvent. Documents from the Maryland Province Archives at Lauinger Library at Georgetown University, including the bill of sale listing each individual, are fueling the search.

While the genealogical research that is being undertaken in this case fascinates, it is overwhelmed by the larger moral issue of what reparations should be as Georgetown University’s Search for Slave Descendants bears fruit.