As It Happens

N.C. woman discovers her 'Grandpa Frank' — one of 272 slaves sold by Georgetown University

Earlene Campbell-Coleman just learned she's the descendant of one of the hundreds of enslaved people sold to pay the debts of a prestigious Washington, D.C. university.
Earlene Campbell-Coleman holds up the image of her great-great-great grandfather Frank Campbell. (Molly Mathis/Charlotte Observer )

Story transcript

Earlene Campbell-Coleman opened an email earlier this month and discovered a grainy old picture of "a very distinguished looking elderly gentleman with white hair and familiar facial features."

It was of her great-great-great grandfather, Frank Campbell, one of the hundreds of enslaved people sold by Jesuit priests to pay off the debts at Georgetown University. 

"All I could do is cry," the Charlotte, N.C., woman told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I had so many thoughts going through my head, from shock, disbelief, anger, I don't know, so many different emotions."

The discovery came from a research project that is part of the the Washington, D.C. school's efforts to come to terms with its slavery-rooted history.

Earlene Campbell-Coleman

Georgetown University, which counts former U.S. president Bill Clinton and late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among its alumni, was founded as Georgetown College in 1791 by Maryland's Jesuit priests and was largely funded by church-owned plantations in the area.

Frank Campbell's own father Watt — Coleman-Campbell's great-great-great-great grandfather — helped build it. 

Georgetown University only exists today because of a massive slave sale that tore families apart. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In 1838, in order to pay off the school's debts, the priests sold 272 slaves to sugar plantations in Louisiana, tearing African-American families apart.

According to a New York Times feature, small children were sent away without their parents to Deep South plantations notorious for back-breaking slave labour. Some people were "dragged off by force to the ship," and many tried — and failed — to run away. 

Now the Georgetown Memory Project is tracing what happened to those 272 people and their descendents.

The image of Frank Campbell — or "Grandpa Frank," as Campbell-Coleman is now calling him — was the first photograph the project's researchers discovered, according to the Charlotte Observer. 

Telling their stories 

"It really brings a human face to the issue and pain of slavery for African-Americans in this country, which for many, I think, has not perhaps been really grasped," Campbell-Coleman said. 

Frank Campbell is pictured with two young girls who are believed to be his granddaughters. (Earlene Campbell-Coleman via Charlotte Observer)

Until she saw that photograph, the 64-year-old retired nurse had no idea she was a descendant of the so-called Georgetown slaves.

"I'm still in the learning phase," she said. "I know three months may sound like a long time, but it really isn't in a process like this."

She recently visited the archives of Ellender Memorial Library at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where the photograph was found. There, she saw three small pictures in an old photo album: one of a a young girl, one of Campbell, and one of Campbell with two girls believed to be his granddaughters. 

These three images of Earlene Campbell-Coleman's ancestors were discovered in a photo album in the Ellender Memorial Library at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. (Earlene Campbell-Coleman )

Inscribed under Campbell's photograph are the words: "Frank Campbell / our old servant / 19 when the / stars fell" — a reference to a massive 1833 meteor storm. Researchers believe the photo was taken in 1902, when Campbell was about 92.

"He witnessed that. So years and years later, as an elderly enslaved gentlemen on the plantations in South Louisiana, to have survived being enslaved and having survived the Civil War —  I'm still trying to wrap my head around all that," Campbell-Coleman said.

According to the Memory Project, Campbell was sold to a plantation in Terrebone Parish, La.

In 1850, he married Mary Jane Mahoney, also sold by the priests in 1838, and they had at least four children together.

He was freed after the Civil War and stayed on at the plantation as a paid servant. He bought a plot of land in Houma, La., in 1882.  It's believed he died between 1910 and 1920.  

Family Reunion

The history lesson has also afforded Campell-Coleman the opportunity to meet living family members she never knew she had. 

"We really need to have a big ol' family reunion, meet and greet, because so many of those don't know each other," she said.

"I've just found out I have lots of cousins I am so anxious to meet, to know, to cry with to laugh with, just to have the full range of emotions about this unbelievable finding."