The Current

How the slave trade ensured Georgetown University's existence

The Georgetown Memory Project wants the university to do more to recognize its history with slavery and make amends for the 272 people sold.
In 1838, 272 slaves were sold to three Louisiana plantations to help secure the future of the leading Catholic institution of higher learning at the time. (Roman Boed/Flickr)

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Maxine Crump, a former TV news anchor, knew that she was a slave descendant, but couldn't figure out why she was Catholic, when most slaves were Protestant. When the mystery was solved, the explanation it came with was startling.

A research group called the Georgetown Memory Project uncovered the truth of Crump's past. Her great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Hawkins, was a slave and a Catholic, owned by prominent Jesuit priests. In 1838, Hawkins along with 271 other slaves were sold to three Louisiana plantations to help secure the future of the leading Catholic institution of higher learning at the time — now called Georgetown University.

Richard Cellini, an alumnus of the university and founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, was the one to call Crump with the news of her heritage. Cellini says seeing the online copy of the 1838 sale agreement was "profoundly moving."

"They were real people with real names and real families and real lives ... and I don't really even consider it something that's in the past. I consider it something that's still very much part of the present."

Crump echoes Cellini's sentiment that this is an issue of today just as much as it is one of the past. While the president of Georgetown University organized a group to study the school's history with slavery, no conclusions have been reached about "what, if anything, it might or should do about the situation," Cellini says.

Since this goes all the way to today, and how there are barriers ... this conversation needs not stop until we have ended those barriers because this is America and America needs to live up to who it says it is ... America created the slaves, America bred slaves for labour and we belong to America and America has to do right by its Americans.- Maxine Crump on what Georgetown University, and American society in general, must do moving forward to deal with the history of slavery

Guests in this segment:

  • Maxine Crump, great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Hawkins, one of the Georgetown slaves sold in 1838, and a member of the Georgetown Memory Project. 
  • Richard Cellini, Georgetown University alumnus and founder of the Georgetown Memory Project. 

The Current contacted Georgetown University to comment on this story, but have not heard back.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.