Few of us can trace our ancestors back seven generations, especially if those ancestors were enslaved. But Jessica Tilson can, and she knows their story is one of pain and betrayal by the very people her great, great, great grandfather may have trusted most.
The Jesuits of Georgetown University on Tuesday will start trying to make amends.
"That's Boudreaux, and that's West Oak Plantation," Tilson said, pointing to a map of the old plantations in Louisiana where the enslaved people were sent. Her family now owns the land where her fore bearers once worked and died in the sugarcane fields as slaves.
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Nearly two centuries ago, the Jesuits who founded the country's most prestigious Catholic university in what would become Washington were facing bankruptcy. So they took 272 of the enslaved people who labored on their plantations in southern Maryland and sold them -- men, women and children -- into even more brutal conditions in the Deep South.
First on the bill of sale was Tilson's great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather -- Isaac.
"He was the first person on the manifest," said Tilson. "He was 65, and he was a slave at West Oak. And he was sold with his family."
Georgetown will formally rename a hall on campus after Hawkins. The hall was once named for one of the men who organized the sale. The Catholic slaves were sold by their own priests. "My ancestors were less important than educating white children," said Tilson.
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But on the campus for the renaming, Tilson is anything buy angry. "I'm just so happy to be here. This is such and exciting moment. Most people see pain. I just see happiness because I know my great great grandfather's name. I know his name was Isaac. I know his parent's names. And most people don't know that."
Tilson took some of the soil from the graveyard where her ancestors were buried and sent it back to the only home they'd known. "I need to meet my ancestors at the gates. I need you to bury this soil at Georgetown," she told university president John DeGioia.
"I look at all these students around here, they're smiling, they're fulfilling their lives, they're getting an education. And my great grandparents are the reason they can fulfill their dream," said Tilson.
There are now thousands of descendants of the Georgetown 272. The university will give them the same preference for admission that it gives the children of alumni. Some of the descendants think that's enough. Some think the college is leading the effort to heal our nation's original sin. And some think it needs to do much more.