Actress S. Epatha Merkerson’s Link to Georgetown University Slaves

On April 11, Georgetown University students overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to pay reparations for the descendants of the 272 slaves the school sold in 1838 to keep the school open. The proposed bill notes that undergraduate students would pay a new $27.20 fee each semester toward the reconciliation fund.

CNN reported that these reparations would generate more than $400,000 a year for charitable purposes benefitting the descendants of the 272 slaves, as well as other people the Maryland Jesuits enslaved.

But the school’s administration has said student referendums do not create university policy and are not binding on the school.

During an episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots that aired earlier this year, actress S. Epatha Merkerson learned that she descends from nine slaves whom the Maryland Province of Jesuits from Georgetown University sold.

Merkerson, 66, may have taped the show a year ago, but she’s still grappling with what her episode revealed about her ancestry. She cried during a special screening of the show at George Washington University in February.

The Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning star of Chicago Med hopes her story inspires viewers to learn more about the people in their daily lives.

“We all pretty much need to understand where each of us comes from, because through that understanding, now you know something … that will make you think differently about someone who’s having difficulty, perhaps,” Merkerson said. “The more you know, the better you are going through the world.”

Finding Your Roots, now in its fifth season on PBS, uses DNA and records to uncover ancestral histories of American celebrities.

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., the series’ executive producer, writer and host, said researchers traced Merkerson’s family tree on her mother’s side back to the 1750s by name to her fifth great grandfather.

Merkerson’s lineage represents the oldest family tree of enslaved ancestors to ever appear on the series, Gates said.

“You know more about your roots than Kunta Kinte,” Gates quipped.

The show revealed that Merkerson’s ancestors labored on the Jesuit priests’ tobacco plantations in Maryland. Georgetown, the university the Jesuits founded, was going through financial problems, so in 1836, the priests asked the Catholic Church for permission to sell their slaves.

With the Catholic Church’s blessing, the priests sold the slaves — including three generations of Merkerson’s family — to two Louisiana planters. There are roughly 6,000 living descendants from the original 272 slaves.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. His press assistant pointed out that Pope John Paul II apologized to Africans in 1985 for the church’s role in the African slave trade.

Georgetown has spent the last four years coming to grips with its slaveholding past. The school currently grants preferential admission consideration to slave descendants. While it doesn’t offer separate financial aid for descendants, all admitted undergraduates have their full need met through a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and work study, Georgetown Media Relations Manager Matt Hill said via email.

“Admission to Georgetown, or any university, is a complex decision that takes into account many factors,” Hill said. “Being a descendant of faculty, staff or alumni, or being a descendant of the people enslaved by the Maryland Province, is one of these factors, but is not the determinative factor in the admissions process.”

Growing up, Merkerson was curious about her roots, especially after her maternal grandmother, Mama Pearl, refused to share anything about the family history.

“You know, she witnessed lynching, so for her it was just painful and there’s no need for her to open that Pandora’s Box into that pain,” Merkerson said.

Merkerson said her Finding Your Roots episode not only helped her understand what her ancestors endured, but it also gave her a new perspective about her 92-year-old mother Anna Bell Bowen. Her mother entered college at 76 and went skydiving at 85. She also raised five kids by herself — all of whom graduated from college and are thriving in their careers.

“How do you explain that kind of strength when everything is against you? Where people are telling you that you’re not going to succeed? Where does that come from?” Merkerson asked. “It’s bred in the bone.”

— Lenore T. Adkins

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