In 1838, a community of around 300 enslaved people lived and labored on Maryland tobacco plantations owned by Georgetown College (now Georgetown University) in Washington, DC. The Jesuits who ran the college had baptized and catechized many of the enslaved. But when the school ran desperately short of funds, the priests sold Georgetown’s slaves to a Louisiana Congressman and one of his fellow sugar plantation owners.
The sale of this group, today dubbed the GU272, generated an estimated $3.3 million in today’s funds, which put Georgetown on solid financial footing. But the sale had dire consequences for the Georgetown slaves—worse, even, than what they had already endured. They were sent to a part of the Deep South known to be excessively violent to slaves.
The story of the GU272 became widely known in 2015. Soon after, Georgetown University created a task force to study its troubling ties to slavery and started The Georgetown Slavery Archive. This digital repository includes images of historical items such as the sale documents for the 272 affected individuals.
Discovering the GU272’s descendants
Other projects attempt to better understand the GU272’s legacy. The Georgetown Memory Project, spearheaded by a Georgetown University alumnus, aims to identify the enslaved individuals and their descendants. Through DNA testing and historical research, they have identified over 200 of those sold and nearly 8,000 of their direct descendants, including many who are still living.
Several of these descendants have come together to form the GU272 Descendants Association, which has the goal of “preserving the memory, commemorating the lives and restoring the honor of the 272 enslaved people.” The group hosted a Google Hangout event after the “Finding Your Roots” episode aired.
AmericanAncestors.org, the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, also plans to launch a resource for these descendants: The GU272 Memory Project. The project’s website will host the first searchable database of genealogical records about the enslaved and their descendants, educational resources on GU272 and African American genealogical methodology, and a series of oral history interviews with descendants. An interactive webpage will point to what’s known about each of the 49 families that made up the GU272.
With these new resources, more people can learn about their connections to the GU272. In the Feb. 5, 2019, episode of “Finding Your Roots” on PBS, “Law & Order” actress S. Epatha Merkerson discovered she descends from the GU272. According to my interview with scholar and show host Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Because of this sale—because three generations were sold on that particular day—we could take her slave ancestry back to the mid-1800s.”