WASHINGTON (WUSA9) - How do you make amends for an almost 180-year-old sin?
On Tuesday, Georgetown University apologized and renamed a building in honor of the 272 enslaved people its founders sold into even greater deprivation in the Deep South.
But a descendant of one of those slaves says the school has been doing penance for years.
Jessica Tilson could not stop crying or hugging Georgetown's president.
In 1838, facing bankruptcy, the Jesuits who founded Georgetown saved the school by selling 272 slaves, including Tilson's great great great grandfather, into the even greater brutality of the sugarcane plantations in Louisiana.
The priests have now apologized for auctioning off their parishioners.
"We have greatly sinned, and we are profoundly sorry," said Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference at a service for remembrance, contrition, and hope.
But Tilson says she can't be angry.
"I think about my daughter, knowing the same school that sold my ancestors is the reason I get to hold my three year old daughter."
Tilson's first child, Charles, died soon after birth from a disease for which there was no medical treatment. Three years later, she had a little girl, with the same disease, who is alive today because of the medical research at Georgetown.
"I can't be mad. I'm happy," she said. "Because every day she wakes up, I get to play with her and hold her."
Little Charles Tilson is buried in a graveyard in southern Louisiana, next to some of the men and women who were sold down the river. His mother has gathered soil from the cemetery and brought it back to Georgetown to help close the mysterious circle of history.
Amidst the reunion at Georgetown, Tilson had just one request of the university: that it's researchers keep saving precious young lives like Jessalyn's.
Many colleges across the US are now grappling with their historic connections to the trade in human beings. Supporters say Georgetown is leading the effort to clear the stain of our nation's original sin.
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