​Georgetown University confronts its history with slavery

Last Updated Jul 14, 2016 5:39 PM EDT

One-hundred-seventy-eight years ago, the school that would become Georgetown University was free to everyone who was able to attend. It was also massively in debt.

To pay that debt, the Jesuits who ran the school, under the auspices of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, sold 272 slaves -- the very people that helped build the school itself.

Today, the university's leaders, students and alumni are grappling with how to confront that history, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

In Louisiana, Cheryllyn Branche and her older brother, John, have lost their family history twice; once, when Hurricane Katrina washed away names and dates in the family Bible, where marriages and other important events were documented; and once generations ago, to the whitewashing of history -- a history that, for many African-Americans, can only be traced back a few generations.

The Branches relied on tales told by elders, of great-aunts traded as the currency of nation-building.

"It seems as though, I am told, that very young she waved goodbye to her mother on a shore, and watched her mother get on a ship, or a boat," said Cheryllyn. "And so, she never saw her again."

How did that happen? Where did that happen? Where did she go? "They are definitely missing pieces," she said.

Until a phone call from a stranger -- an alumnus of Georgetown named Richard Cellini -- started to fill in the holes of her family tree with lists of names.

Was she suspicious of the call at first? "I was not suspect because I didn't give him information," she said. "He gave me information. He came up with names that I knew from my grandmother's side of the family."

"And like that," recalled Cellini, "she said, 'Let's start the whole conversation over again.'"

Cellini told Branche that her great-great grandparents, Hillary and Henny, were part of a group of 272 slaves who in 1838 were sold by the Jesuit priests who ran the school to three plantations in southern Louisiana, near where Branche and her brother still live.

It was the piece of the puzzle she didn't have.

"My entire identity is wrapped up in the folks who came before me, the things that made us family, the traditions that were handed down," she said.

Cellini isn't a historian; he runs a software company. But last November, after researching his alma mater, he happened upon Georgetown's slave sale, which settled a debt and saved the university.

"They were sold for $115,000 in 1838 money, which would be about $3.3 million today," he told Miller. "And that money was literally used to help Georgetown avoid bankruptcy."

Cellini hired Baton Rouge genealogist Judy Riffel to help him track down the descendants of those original 272 slaves. She poured through meticulous records kept by Louisiana clergymen -- priests who baptized, married, and even buried slaves who stayed true to the faith.

Cellini estimates there are between 10,000 and 15,000 descendants living today.

"There's only one thing that separates these benefactors from most of Georgetown's other benefactors: Race," he said. "If somebody had written a check in 1838 that wiped out the university's debts, there's no doubt in my mind that buildings would be named after that person, that person would be celebrated, and his descendants would have no problem whatsoever being admitted to Georgetown, even down unto this day."

Georgetown President John DeGioia responded, "We're saying, what is our responsibility today in this moment?"

"Slavery, part of why it was so awful, was that for 200 years people could not pass on any form of wealth to the next generation," said Miller. "And here's an institution on the backs of 272 people -- certainly the debt was paid. Could the university offer legacy status to descendants of the 272 people?"

"These are complicated for a number of reasons," DeGioia said. "I believe the fundamental question that we are wrestling with now is, how can we contribute in new ways to ensuring ever more access and affordability to higher education in America for the hundreds of thousands who are not able to access it?"

DeGioia convened a group of students, alumni and professors, which will make several recommendations on how the university should best recognize its role in slavery. He's even met with some of the descendents themselves, asking the question they've been facing for generations: how to pay back the human investment.

Miller asked Branche,"Do you feel as though Georgetown owes these families a debt?"

"Well, certainly," she replied. "How to collect on a debt from how ever long ago wouldn't be my purpose. But if Georgetown wants to do something, maybe the benefit for my nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews would be wonderful. It would be fantastic."

The university is hoping that by the fall they will have concrete ideas about how to memorialize the 272 original slaves. Some early ideas include memorials, campus dialogues and scholarships.

But most importantly, this story is part of a larger conversation about equality they hope will continue.

DeGioia (who is the first president of an elite university to have met with the descendants of slaves in a case such as this) says he is adamant about making sure these conversations are heard.


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Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that the sale of slaves was made by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, not the university itself.