What can we do? Something: Richard Cellini lectures on slavery’s legacy in universities

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

In 2015, student protesters at Georgetown University brought Georgetown’s selling of 272 enslaved people in 1838 into sharp focus. This sale of people directly benefited the university, allowing it to continue operations and eventually become a premier institution. Richard Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus and attorney in Massachusetts, was interested in the student protests, but struck by the fact that most of the focus seemed to be on the university, not the enslaved people.

He reached out to the university with a simple question: “What happened to the people? What happened to the 272 men, women, and children who were sold to southern Louisiana in 1838?” Georgetown promptly replied to him, saying, “As far as we can tell, all of them quickly succumbed to a fever in the malodorous swamp world of Louisiana.” In other words, Cellini noted, Georgetown was essentially saying “they left no descendents.” He knew this couldn’t be true. 

Since then, the Georgetown Memory Project has identified 227 of the enslaved people sold by Georgetown and over 8,000 of their direct descendents. 

Cellini is the founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, an independent group dedicated to identifying the 272 original enslaved people sold by Georgetown, identifying those people’s descendents, and supporting reconciliatory measures. On September 23, Cellini came to the University through the initiative of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation to deliver his lecture, “Slavery and the Old School Tie: Shouldering Responsibility for Alma Mater’s Role in the Slave Trade.” 

Sewanee, of course, is wrestling with its own history as it relates to slavery and race through the Roberson Project, led by Dr. Woody Register (C’80). The Roberson Project has produced research on the University’s history, engaged with Sewanee’s historically-black communities in archival events, conducted oral histories, and remains committed to reconciling Sewanee’s past with its present. 

This work is part of a wider movement of universities, or independent groups like the Georgetown Memory Project, studying their histories with slavery, including Brown University, the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, the University of Richmond, and the University of North Carolina, among others. 

Cellini’s lecture was in three parts: the history of the 272 slaves sold by Georgetown and the Georgetown Memory Project, general observations on universities and their pasts with slavery, and what Sewanee in particular might do in order to reconcile its past. 

Register, recognizing the direct parallels between Georgetown’s work and Sewanee’s, noted, “One of the major purchasing planters for this initial sale that saved Georgetown was Henry Johnson in Louisiana, later the governor, a congressman, and one of the largest benefactors in the founding of our own University of the South.”

The Georgetown Memory Project has done exemplary work in the role of both history and activism. Georgetown now gives descendents of the 272 enslaved people sold by Georgetown preference in the admissions process, at about the same rate as legacy students. 

Additionally, the Georgetown student body approved a referendum to make financial reparations to the descendents, to be taken out of students’ activities fees, which marks the first time students at an American university have taken such a measure. Just this month, as reported in the Washington Post, students at Georgetown are protesting to call on the school to comply with the student referendum and put the policy into action. 

All of this led to the key question: how should universities deal with their past? “When you’re considering this question,” Cellini said, “there are really only three possible answers: there’s everything, there’s nothing, and there’s something.” 

While nobody has seriously entertained that a major university be completely liquidated to pay for the wrongs of slavery, it is also true that, as Cellini said, “the mainstream default position has been the other extreme, nothing.” 

In his definition of ‘doing nothing,’ Cellini included small and symbolic gestures, such as memorial plaques and renaming, as these efforts do not address the wrongs the university has committed to the people who have been wronged. 

He suggested, then, that universities simply do ‘something,’ which he said would “require courage, wisdom, generosity, and grace.” 

Any form of reparations a university makes, Cellini said, should be voluntary, proportionate, remedial, equivalent, inclusive, and coordinated. 

Cellini addressed why it is important for universities to confront their histories with slavery, saying that it’s past time to right these wrongs, and because, simply, “we can.”

Cellini’s lecture at Sewanee is available on the Roberson Project’s YouTube channel, titled “Richard Cellini: Slavery and the Old School Tie.” 

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