WASHINGTON, DC (WWL/WUSA*9)--Georgetown University is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning in the United States. It has a long history of notable alumni: Supreme Court justices, members of Congress. Even some American Presidents. However, a recent New York Times article has shined a less than flattering light on a part of the school's past. Its history tied to slavery.
178 years ago, the Jesuit priests running Georgetown had racked up tremendous debt. The school was in jeopardy. In order to dig themselves out of financial ruin, Georgetown's leaders sold the men, women and children who worked on Jesuit-owned plantations in the state of Maryland.
"The Catholic Church owned slaves. I mean priests, Jesuits, whipped and owned slaves and then sold them to save a university to educate white people," Maxine Crump tells WUSA9 sister station, WWL in Louisiana. "That's just not right."
Crump is the great-great-granddaughter of Cornelius Hawkins. He went by Neely.
"It's just hard to think about," says Crump standing in the cemetery where Hawkins is now buried.
Cornelius Hawkins was only 13 when he was sold by the Jesuit priests of Georgetown back in 1838. Crump never knew her family is part of the reason Georgetown still exists today. That changed in January, when a Georgetown alum named Richard Cellini gave her a call.
"And he said some names have come up that are connected to you."
MORE: Slavery in Maryland
The slaves were kept by the priests on Maryland plantations. Hawkins, along with 271 others, were loaded onto boats out of the Port of Alexandria and sent to Louisiana. The transaction would be worth about 3-million dollars today.
Cellini created the Georgetown Memory Project and hired genealogists, including Judy Riffle, to locate living descendants.
"They were put on three different plantations in Louisiana," says Riffle.
Finding family today was helped by the church's meticulous record keeping. The Jesuit priests allowed the slaves to practice Catholicism. It was Hawkins dedication to the church that kept him in record books.
"A lot of them also remained Catholic," says Riffle. "So I could pick them up in the Catholic church records when they married, had children, and baptized them."
Riffle was also able to find death certificates of Hawkins' family members in state archives. Hawkins also pops up on the inventory records each time the plantation was sold. One document shows that at the age of 24, Hawkins was valued at $900.
"I put flowers here because I decided if no one knows he's here, no one was probably putting flowers," says Hawkins great-great granddaughter.
It was Hawkins strong Catholic faith that provided a trail for genealogists to find him here, his final resting place. The only Catholic cemetery in the town of Maringouin, Louisiana.
"I am a little tired of people saying slavery is in the past," says Crump. "Let's leave it in the past. But what about Cornelius?" she asks.
Ms. Crump would like to see Georgetown honor its former slaves and for the university to provide scholarships for their descendants.
WUSA*9 asked university officials to talk with us on camera, but they declined at this time. However, in a written statement, a school spokesperson says:
"The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which was charged by Georgetown's President in September 2015, has been thoughtfully developing a comprehensive range of actions for the university to consider to best acknowledge our historical ties to slavery. The Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation considerations include public memorials, the renaming of buildings, identification of significant historical locations on campus, enabling research that advances understanding of the history, support for descendants, and convening events and opportunities for dialogue on these issues. The working group is expected to complete this phase of their work [and] in the coming weeks and months."
The two Georgetown presidents most responsible for the slave trade, the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, had their names removed from campus buildings last year. These buildings are now called Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.
And in a bit of irony, Rev. John Healy, who was President of Georgetown from 1874 to 1881, was the first African-American to become a Jesuit priest. And the first to be president of Georgetown. He is often referred to as the University's second founder. This is because of all his work in modernizing the school's curriculum.