Website documents histories of Georgetown-owned slaves

A Boston-based genealogical organization and a Georgetown University graduate who launched a project to trace the family histories of hundreds of black slaves sold by the Jesuits who ran the college in 1838 have teamed up to digitize the information and make it available to people researching family histories.

The public announcement Wednesday of what's known as the GU272 Memory Project coincides not only with Juneteenth — the annual observance of the 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in America — but also with the anniversary of the 1838 sale of 272 of the more than 300 slaves the Washington, D.C., college sold over a five-year period.

American Ancestors, also known as the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has troves of genealogical information on its website, but the GU272 Project is unique, said Claire Vail, the project director.

"For this project, we said, 'Let's do something different and let's talk to the living descendants,' most of whom have ... no family lore that stretched back to their enslaved ancestors," she said.

So in addition to documents, photographs and the indexed genealogies of thousands of descendants, the project includes recorded interviews with dozens of living descendants.

"As black Americans — as descendants of enslaved people — we have always been told, 'You'll never know who you are. You'll never know where you came from.' Now that we have this data, my hope is that we can use it to open doors and make connections," Mélisande Short-Colomb, 65, a slave descendant pursuing a history degree at Georgetown, said in a statement released by American Ancestors.

Facing mounting debt, the Jesuits who ran what was then known as Georgetown College made the decision to sell the slaves to a Louisiana sugar plantation. The slaves themselves were Roman Catholic, having been baptized by the Rev. Thomas Mulledy, Georgetown's president.

The sale raised $115,000, or about $3.3 million in today's dollars, and allowed the Jesuits to settle their most pressing debts and start the process of transforming the modest college into today's prestigious Georgetown University.

Much of the information for the American Ancestors site comes from a project launched several years ago by Richard Cellini, an attorney from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown.

His interest was sparked by student protests on campus over the slave sale. University folklore held that all of them died soon after the sale, a conclusion he refused to accept because it didn't make sense.

"Even the Titanic had survivors," he said, stressing that his research was independent and received no funding from the university.

The university has, however, done its own research into the sale and the fate of the slaves in a project started in the 1990s. Archived documents include a letter detailing how Jesuit priests from Maryland traveled to Louisiana a decade after the sale in order to understand the lives of the slaves sold there, according to a Georgetown spokeswoman.

Cellini hired genealogists who dug into Louisiana and Maryland records. The ongoing project has so far located 224 of the slaves and nearly 8,500 descendants, about 4,000 of whom are living.

When it came to making the information public, he knew American Ancestors was the place to go as what he calls the gold standard of genealogical research.

Cellini dearly loves his alma mater, but he acknowledged that the project has shocked some people.

But he said the slaves deserve a place of honor in school history.

"Everyone who loves Georgetown should be proud and grateful to the people who founded it," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, the slaves are part of that, and I am grateful and proud of these families who helped make Georgetown what it is."