The search for the lost slaves began with a simple question.
Every month for two years, Richard Cellini, founder of an organization looking for descendants of the slaves sold to save Georgetown University, had updated a spreadsheet. It showed consistent progress: More and more descendants were learning the truth — that the Jesuit priests running Georgetown had sold their ancestors in 1838 to two Louisiana plantation owners to pay university debts.
But Cellini couldn’t get past a problem. Roughly a full third of the sold slaves — 91 in all — were nowhere to be found in any historical record in Louisiana. Where were they? The question led to a startling answer: The “lost Jesuit slaves,” as Cellini had taken to calling them, weren’t lost at all. In fact, they’d never left Maryland. For some reason, they had been left behind.
The revelation has ushered in the next chapter of an ongoing historical reckoning playing out at Georgetown University, which in 2016 offered preferential status to the descendants to atone for its role in the slave trade. Researchers estimate there are as many as 3,000 living offspring of the 91 slaves, many of whom are sprinkled throughout Maryland, the District and Virginia. The vast majority have no idea of their relation to one of the nation’s leading universities.
So the Georgetown Memory Project has set out to find them, bringing a search that had gone global back to its local origins: the counties in southern Maryland where the slaves had once worked on Jesuit plantations. Researchers are calling unknowing descendants. They are knocking on doors, combing through historical records and fielding emails from curious locals whose DNA tests showed a possible relation to other descendants of Georgetown’s slaves.
The truth is asymmetrical, Cellini likes to say. Georgetown and the Jesuits have the answers. And it’s up to them to find the progeny. It won’t happen the other way around.
“All of us have been complicit in not sharing this information, and every year we don’t share it, we continue to be complicit,” Cellini said. “We have an affirmative obligation to share it.”
Some had fled, having heard word of their sale, and hid in the woods while others were placed on ships bound for Louisiana. Some ran away. One man, age 65, was left behind because he was too old. Others died between their sale and their shipment. And for others, they never journeyed south with the rest because of the unusual conditions of the sale agreement.
For the transaction to go through, the Georgetown priests had needed the approval of the Jesuit Superior General in Rome. He allowed it on the condition that husbands and wives were not separated, presumably to honor the sacrament of marriage. The problem was that some slaves were married to slaves belonging to other plantation owners, or were married to freed men and women. So the Jesuits started swapping slaves with local plantation owners. Some of those who had originally been sold were left behind, while these other slaves, never actually listed in the original bill of sale and never owned by the Jesuits, were sent down to Louisiana as replacements. The confusion over which slaves would go to Louisiana led to long delays in some cases and some slaves just remained in Maryland.
Nearly 200 years later, the only artifact that some of the families retain of this history are names plucked from another time — Cutchember, Sweeton, Yorkshire — names that at one time belonged to the prominent, white slave-owning Marylanders who had sold or donated slaves to the Jesuits.
The rarity of the names has turned out to be almost the only break that has gone the way of the genealogists searching for descendants. The quality and quantity of historical records are highly varied across states. Some, like Louisiana, with its French and Catholic legacy, have a robust trail of records. But in others, like Maryland, incomplete record keeping has obfuscated the stories of innumerable slaves.