In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to the state of Louisiana.
And Jeremy Alexander — an executive assistant at Georgetown University — is a direct descendant of one of them.
Alexander learned of his lineage thanks to an AncestryDNA test that he took in 2014. It was an astonishing discovery and one that gave him a clearer picture of his identity and, more importantly, the history of his family.
"It’s a good sense of mind just to be able to call their names," he says. "To identify, to make them human."
What followed is a moving story of self-discovery — for Alexander, for the descendants of the 272, and for Georgetown. Check it out right here:
"He took a DNA test and found out he is a descendant of slaves who were owned and sold by the institution he currently works for."
It all started when Alexander wanted to know just how far back his roots go.
Since 2008, Alexander and his wife, Leslie, started building their Ancestry family tree right after their son was born. They wanted to trace their family history back as far as they possibly could in order to learn the names of distant ancestors over multiple generations.
He’d been curious about where he came from and would even ask his elders to tell him stories about relatives he was never able to meet.
So it was no wonder that Alexander was ecstatic when he was finally able to take the AncestryDNA test to dive deeper into his heritage. And Ancestry made it easy to connect with a family member Alexander had never met, who had some interesting information about her own story — that turned out to be part of his story as well.
"I received an email [through Ancestry] from Melissa Kemp, my third cousin, that I was a descendant of the Georgetown 272 slaves that were sold back in 1838," he remembers. He was the descendant of Anna Mahoney, who later became Anna Mahoney Jones, a woman who, with her son Arnold and her sister Louisa, were transferred from Alexandria down to Louisiana in this sale.
"I couldn’t believe that she just told me this information. I had to tell her, I said, ‘You have to understand, Melissa, that I actually work for Georgetown University. That’s where you’re talking to me right now. I’m sitting here in my office.’ She was blown away."
Soon after Alexander learned about his connection to Georgetown, the university also decided to finally make amends for its history of slavery and offered a formal apology.
"We hosted two major events," says Marcia Chatelain, associate professor for the history department at Georgetown. "The first was to offer a formal apology to the descendants of the 272, and then we rededicated two buildings on Georgetown’s campus."
It was a truly powerful event for Alexander and one that moved him to tears. No doubt the message that Georgetown delivered was one he’ll remember forever.
"As we seek to more deeply understand our story," said Georgetown president John J. DeGioia, "we too deepen our understanding of our shared American story."
"We offer this apology for the sins against your ancestors."
A deeper appreciation of our past can undoubtedly light the way toward a more unified future.
"It was so powerful," Alexander says about the event. "It brought me to tears because I never expected to hear anyone apologize, to say they are sorry to me for their acts of slavery."
"I look at that as a wonderful first step in terms of a healing process," he adds.
"When you really look at the whole event," he continues "and especially even the messages after that, everything was about, ‘Let’s get through this healing process together.’"
Now, Alexander is looking to the future and hopeful that his son, Jesse, will grow up in a different world.
Unlocking the richness of his past has changed Alexander’s approach to fatherhood for the better. Plus, with Georgetown setting a new tone for the future, he is less worried about the challenges Jesse might face.
"My son is really going to have a great sense of pride to know that he came from strong people," Alexander says. "All we can wish is that he will do better in America. And that’s what we wish for Jesse, is to have that better opportunity."