Georgetown University in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan)

IN 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to plantations in the Deep South. Families and communities were shattered as men, women and children — as young as 2 months old — were sent on ships to be sold on the docks in New Orleans. The Jesuits who arranged the sale to get money to keep the university alive knew the evil of what they were doing. "It would be better to suffer financial disaster than suffer the loss of our souls with the sale of the slaves," wrote one Jesuit official who balked before being talked into the sale.

Now, more than 170 years later, Georgetown is in the midst of an extraordinary effort to come to a reckoning with those events. The intent is not only to bear witness and make amends, but also to address the racism that still infects American life and institutions.

The work of a number of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists to find out what happened to these 272 slaves and to trace their descendants was detailed in a powerful article by the New York Times's Rachel L. Swarns. The university established a working group in August; in the fall, its work acquired greater urgency in the wake of student protests across the country about racial injustice. The names of two college officials involved in the sale were removed from buildings being renovated, which were renamed Remembrance Hall and Freedom Hall.

Separately, alumnus Richard J. Cellini set up a nonprofit, hired genealogists and raised money to assist in the research. The work of the Georgetown Memory Project is guided, says its website, by the Jesuit philosophy of magis (doing more). "This is not a disembodied group of people, who are nameless and faceless. These are real people with real names and real descendants," Mr. Cellini told the Times. Poignant proof of his words came in the story pieced together by the researchers of Cornelius Hawkins, about 13 years old when he was sold in 1838. He became a father, a husband, a farm laborer and finally a free man. The coda was the location of one of his descendants. "Oh my God. Oh my God," said Maxine Crump, 69, of Louisiana when she was told of her ancestor.

The hardest task for the university lies in deciding what to do about its past sins. Does it issue an apology, create a memorial to those enslaved, provide scholarships for the descendants of the slaves? The working group is preparing recommendations, so it is premature for the school to embrace a specific course of action. No amends can ever be adequate, but Georgetown has already done something valuable by illuminating a dark part of its history — as well as the lives of those 272 human beings.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Yarrow Mamout, the slave who became a Georgetown financier

Ted Gup: By retiring a seal, Harvard wages a war on the dead — but to what end?

George F. Will: Out with ‘Redskins’ — and everything else!

Richard Cohen: Woodrow Wilson was racist, but he deserves our understanding

Keith Gaby: Which statues of historical figures should we remove? Use this test.