On Thursday, Georgetown University’s president promised to apologize for the university’s role in the slave trade and presented several efforts aimed at righting its past wrongs. The university will give admissions preference to descendants of slaves sold to pay off the school’s debt, for example, and rename buildings that once honored Jesuits who sold enslaved people to honor slaves instead.

It was one of the most aggressive responses of the growing number of universities confronting their troubled history involving slavery and trying to make amends. And it elicited a variety of complicated emotions from people who trace their roots back to that 19th century sale of 272 people.  

— Susan Svrluga

Karran Harper Royal

The moment Karran Harper Royal stepped through the gates of Georgetown on Thursday, a student ran up and asked her, “Are you a descendant?”

She was already praying she could keep it together — seeing Healy Hall, and thinking of her ancestors, enslaved, building those beautiful stone buildings, staring at the grass and thinking, “Our people walked this ground.”

She had flown to the District from her home in New Orleans that morning for a genealogy conference, and asked to meet with the Georgetown students who had protested that buildings on campus should not be named in honor of men who had sold slaves to finance the school. She wanted to thank those students.

So it was a considerable surprise to find out two days before she left that, the very hour after that planned meeting at Georgetown with students, the university’s president would pledge to apologize for the institution’s slave history.

“It is divine providence that we are here, even though we were not invited,” she said, marveling at the timing. “We know where we are supposed to be.

“I feel like the ancestors are guiding us — they want us to be a part of reconciling what happened in their lives — that’s why we’re here.”

She and other descendants had asked to be at the announcement, she said, but they were not invited. They had asked to be part of the working group looking into the issue, she said, but they were not invited.

“When you’re talking about reconciling the legacy of slavery, you have to move forward in a different spirit,” she said. “You have to move forward with people.

“I understand, as a university they’re not used to having to work on an equal playing field, but when dealing with something as sensitive as race and the legacy of slavery, you have to humble yourself and recognize you may not recognize the path forward.”

She met Georgetown’s president when university leaders reached out to descendants earlier this year. “He welcomed us into the Georgetown family.

“In New Orleans,” she said pointedly, “when family has a gathering — family is invited. Sometimes family is a part of putting that gathering together.”

She is putting that sting past her, she said, of being excluded, and she is ready to move forward. She works as an advocate for parents of children with disabilities, so she is a fighter, she said. She is tough: “You can’t have a healing and a reconciliation without mutual respect and collaboration. We are ready to do that.”

Royal is a direct descendant of some of those enslaved people, and her husband and children are direct descendants of others, so the sale, and the splintering of families, and the treatment of those people on cotton plantations in the Deep South is not abstract for her.

And she said she feels the urgency for the country in dealing with the legacy of slavery — in protests and racial tensions nationwide: “We can’t have healing without dealing with it. Now is the time to do it.”

Melisande Colomb

As a child growing up in New Orleans, Melisande Colomb’s grandmother and great-grandmother had told her what they knew of their family’s story, as families do. But what they knew stopped after a few generations, and there was some confusion about whether her ancestors had been free or enslaved just before the Civil War.

Three weeks ago, she got a message from a researcher at Georgetown who told her she was directly related to slaves the university’s leaders had sold in the 19th century — a husband and wife married in their teens, who were suddenly, as she understands it, “snatched up, put in pens, then on a boat and then sent down south.”

She knew the family story, that her ancestors were enslaved. But to be presented with historical fact was unexpectedly visceral.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said. She thought about the stories she had heard from her grandmother, about her grandparents. “And I felt so sad. And it hurt. I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious — I had a nauseous kind of feeling in my stomach the whole night. When I realized my people were those people my heart beat a little quicker and my blood got a little warmer. Because they were my people.”

She has learned that part of her family was freed and part was sold by the Jesuits to a plantation in Louisiana, explaining the discrepancy in family history.

“It’s an amazing thing for me, to be historically so significant in the very beginnings of what it means to be an American.

“My story is not a slave story, or an African story,” she said. “My story is an American story.”

It hurts, she said, and all the more because race relations are so raw right now: “America has not learned anything. Because people are really, really ugly right now.”

Many people were talking about a football player who sat down during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this week, she said: “I have not stood for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ since I was 14 years old. I go to football games, basketball games, public events, and when everyone stands up and puts their hands over their hearts, I sit down.

“I’ve been sitting down.

“And there are lots of people who have been sitting down. Nobody looks around them until it’s a big deal. Everyone’s walking around with blinders on, not seeing what they don’t want to see.”

The little-known third verse of the song denigrates black people who fought with the British because they wanted to be free, she said. “How can we say we are the land of the free and the brave when we practice discrimination?”

She welcomed the promise of an apology from Georgetown: “Acknowledgment is good.”

So now what?

“Money — no. I can’t be compensated financially for that,” she said. “But as Americans, are we not obligated to open up a dialogue to truth and reconciliation? For ourselves — for our children — for future generations. We can’t keep telling the same lies.”

She doesn’t have any expectations, she said, “because that is my American experience.”

She is looking forward to meeting new family members; she already has heard from some. But from Georgetown, her expectations are low: “I guess I’ve learned not to trust things that — a lot of things get started that never get finished. And that’s just how it goes.”

Jessica Tilson

Jessica Tilson was driving her mother to work when she got the email Thursday morning from Georgetown. She burst into tears and pulled over into a gas station parking lot and told her mother. They cried together and talked about how they would tell her 80-year-old grandfather and try to gather up as many family members as they could to watch the live feed from Georgetown in the afternoon, and they cried some more.

“I love the idea — all of it,” said Tilson, a 34-year-old studying microbiology at Southern University in Louisiana. “Especially the name of the buildings. Isaac is my sixth great-grandfather. …

“When people name buildings after people, it shows how much you value them and respect them.

“That is — I’m speechless. There are no feelings in the world that can describe how that feels.”

She said phone calls and messages were flying Thursday: “Did you hear what happened? Did you hear what happened? Did you read? Did you read?”

“I know some of the descendants wanted something to happen for us. I didn’t want anything for me. I wanted them to do something for my ancestors. That was the part that made me cry.

“I was just born into this family, but they were the actual people that went through it.”

“Some of the descendants wanted money — reparations,” she said. But she didn’t. “Georgetown hand me money for raping beating and selling my ancestors? I refuse to take money that way.”

She couldn’t do anything with such tainted money even if she had it: “It would always be on my conscience.”

Besides, money can disappear quickly, she said: “Education is what my family has always strived for. Try to do better than the last generation, and education is the only way.”

She said she likes the idea of a preference for descendants in admissions. Still, it was limited. “Some of us that do not want to attend Georgetown University — it would be nice if they could offer help at another university we want to attend.

“Mentally and physically some of us couldn’t make it to Georgetown. I think it would be hard for me to sit in a classroom — and think my sixth great-grandfather and aunts and uncles were sold and beaten here. I wish they could … take that into consideration,” she said.

But the promise to apologize is important, she said: “It means a lot because most universities are places that owned slaves, and they very rarely apologize or even seek out to find the family members they hurt. When I do wrong I apologize to someone. An apology is nice.”

She is planning to go to Georgetown for the first time next summer, and doesn’t know what to expect — other than a rush of emotions. “Everyone always tells me how beautiful the school is. Knowing my ancestors’ lives were sacrificed for that building to be there — I might get angry when I get there,” she said. “I might start crying. I don’t know what to feel exactly yet.”

But she also said she thinks about the students there: “There are kids that look like me that attend Georgetown University that become doctors and lawyers.”

And that promise for the future is important, too.

“Most people are upset about what happened,” she said of the descendants she knows. But she said she looks at it differently. She had tried some genealogical research but couldn’t get past the late 1800s. It was Georgetown researchers who traced her family back. “I would never have known to look in Maryland or Virginia for my ancestors.

“Most people don’t get a chance to learn their great, great, great, great-grandparents — especially African Americans. Here I have my ancestry documented back to the 1730s,” she said. “They gave me back my history.”