New Website Documents Family Histories of Enslaved People Alongside the Voices of Their Living Descendants
American Ancestors Launches Database of Men, Women, and Children Sold by the Jesuits of Georgetown College in 1838
Visit the GU272 Memory Project at gu272.americanancestors.org
June 19, 2019—Boston, Massachusetts—American Ancestors is commemorating Juneteenth, a national day observing the 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in America, with the launch of a new website that traces the family histories of more than 300 men, women, and children sold by the Jesuit priests of Georgetown University (then known as Georgetown College) in 1838 to Louisiana sugar plantations. Today also marks the 181st anniversary of the actual date on which the enslaved people of Georgetown College were sold.
Named for Georgetown University and the 272 people listed on the 1838 bill of sale, the GU272 Memory Project website ( gu272.americanancestors.org) features fully documented genealogies of the families who were sold, along with audio interviews of their modern descendants speaking about a wide range of topics, from personal memories of family members to racism in America.
Mélisande Short-Colomb, a 65-year-old GU272 descendant who is now pursuing her BA inhistory at Georgetown University, said, “As Black Americans--as descendants of enslavedpeople--we have always been told ‘you’ll never know who you are. You’ll never know whereyou came from.’ Now that we have this data, my hope is that we can use it to open doors and make connections. We have been here since the founding of this country, and we are asignificant part of the American experience.”
The Georgetown sale is one of the largest recorded sales of enslaved people in U.S. history. In total, 314 individuals comprising 49 families were sold in 1838. Until the early 2000s, Georgetown lore held that none of the slaves survived the journey from Maryland to Louisiana; in fact, virtually all of them survived. Denied the right to practice their religion, and forced to work on plantations in brutal conditions, the survivors nevertheless married and had children and grandchildren: to date, 8,425 descendants of the GU272 have been identified, more than 4,000 of whom are still living today, and some of whom are interviewed on the GU272 Memory Project website.
“Having descendant voices present alongside historical documents is an essential part of the GU272 narrative,” said Claire Vail, the project’s director for American Ancestors. “Documents provide the factual framework, but people supply the human story.”
The project—and the resulting website—is the culmination of years of collaboration between American Ancestors, the country’s oldest and largest genealogical society, and the Georgetown Memory Project, a non-profit research organization founded in 2015 byGeorgetown alumnus Richard Cellini to identify the original members of the GU272, and totrace their direct descendants (living and deceased).
Said Cellini, “When it comes to finding the descendants of people once enslaved in America, the hard part isn’t the finding. It’s the looking. It’s hard to look. But when we look, we find.”
D. Brenton Simons, President and CEO of American Ancestors, stated: “This unique resource for African American family history will help people delve deeply and meaningfully into the genealogies and stories of the GU272 families by bringing carefully documented research to the public in a central portal for the first time ever.” He added, “By collaborating with descendants, genealogists, historians, and like-minded nonprofits, we are able to offer this important new digital family history project to educate and connect people across generations.”
About the GU272 Memory Project website
The GU272 Memory Project—located at gu272.americanancestors.org—includes a historical narrative, a guide with clues for determining whether one is a descendant, interviews with more than 40 GU272 descendants (presented as one-to-four-minute audio segments covering a range of topics, from segregation in the South to personal relationships within families), research tools for GU272 descendants and African American family historians, and short biographies of the heads of 32 of the families.
The cornerstone of the website is a searchable database that provides the indexed genealogies of thousands of non-living descendants of the 314 people sold (for privacy reasons, genealogical records of living descendants have been withheld). The database comprises 50 volumes (49 family volumes and one source documentation volume) with nearly 1,000 images and more than 10,000 records and 32,000 searchable names. It is indexed with name, date, location, record type, and names of family members. Access to the site is FREE to all members of American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), including those who sign up for a free guest account. See americanancestors.org/membership/guestusers to register for a free guest account.
The Georgetown Memory Project was founded by Cambridge, Mass. resident and GeorgetownUniversity alumnus Richard Cellini. He brought together professionals in the world ofgenealogy who to date have located 8,425 descendants of the 314 enslaved people sold in the 1838 sale—more than 4,000 of whom are alive today. Living descendants of the slaves could have educational benefits offered to them by Georgetown University. In April of 2019, Cellini was named a Councilor of American Ancestors / New England Historic Genealogical Society.
The creation of the website was generously funded through American Ancestors and NEHGSby Helen E. R. Sayles, CBE, and DuWayne R. Sayles of Concord, Mass. The genealogicalresearch presented on the website was funded and produced by the Georgetown MemoryProject, working in close collaboration with members of the GU272 descendant community.
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