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Her ‘Grandpa Frank’ was a slave and she’d never seen his face – then her phone rang

Charlotte resident Earlene Campbell-Coleman recently received a photo of a former slave who turned out to be her great-great-great grandfather, one of 272 slaves sold by Jesuit priests in 1838 to help save Georgetown University.

Earlene Campbell-Coleman, who recently received a photo of a former slave who turned out to be her great-great-great grandfather. Frank Coleman was among 272 slaves sold by Jesuit priests in 1838, to plantations in Louisiana, to help save Georgetown University. The photo of Frank Coleman was the first picture of the slaves that genealogists have found. Molly Mathis, The Charlotte Observer

Retired nurse Earlene Campbell-Coleman was home in Charlotte, preparing for a trip to see her aging father in Louisiana, when the phone rang on a Monday night two weeks ago.

“I’m honored to meet you,” said a man who introduced himself as Richard Cellini. “Your ancestors helped build Georgetown University.”

Campbell-Coleman reopened the email he had sent and wept. A yellowed photograph showed a bearded, white-haired gent, kerchief knotted at his neck, britches hoisted high by suspenders: her great-great-great grandfather, Frank Campbell.

Campbell was much more than that. His was the first photo to be found of the 272 slaves that Georgetown’s founders, Jesuit priests in Maryland, had sold to pay the school’s debts in 1838.

Today the private Washington, D.C., school and its critics are debating how to acknowledge school roots that are based in part on the sale of men, women and children to sugar plantations in Louisiana.

And Campbell-Coleman is getting to know ancestors who suffered through and survived one of the most brutal chapters in the nation’s past.

A glance at the century-old photo told her that Frank Campbell was kin. The high, broad cheekbones, sharp nose, receding hairline and sturdy build, shared by other men in her line, meant “that’s a Campbell.”

“It just took my breath away, and I just cried,” she said.

The tears fell from equal parts anger and hurt.

“Just the story of America’s history with slavery is bad enough, and to know my ancestors as African Americans were involved is horrific enough. But my Grandpa Frank just puts a face and humanity to it for many people who have not been able to grasp the depth of the pain of ancestors of slavery.”

Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus who is CEO of a data analytics firm in Cambridge, Mass., founded the Georgetown Memory Project to research the university’s slavery past. He called the discovery of Campbell’s photograph “momentous.”

The project’s researchers have found records documenting 212 of the 272 slaves sold, and 4,001 direct descendants like Campbell-Coleman. They will look hard now for more photographs of the former slaves, Cellini said.

“It puts a human face on another abstract, conceptual, historical tragedy,” he said. “It’s too easy for people to feel removed from the events of 1838, which was a very long time ago. For a lot of people, ‘the slaves’ are an abstraction like ‘the Vikings’ or ‘the French.’ They’ve been nameless and faceless, but when we found the picture of Mr. Campbell they have a face. Now we can put a face to the travesty that took place in 1838.”

But the path to Frank Campbell’s resurrection actually began in 1833, the year the stars fell.

Three tiny photos

A few days after her talk with Cellini, Campbell-Coleman, 64, sat in the archives of Ellender Memorial Library at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. She paged through an old photo album to three tiny photographs.

One photo showed a white-haired, bearded black man. The second was of a young girl. The third showed the same bearded man with two young girls who researchers believe were his granddaughters.

A penciled inscription read: “Frank Cambell / our old servant / 19 when the / stars fell in / 1832.”

“When the stars fell” referred to a ferocious meteor storm, actually in 1833, that became as familiar a reference point for 19th century Americans as “9/11” is to us.

It also helped identify Campbell.

Library archivist and interim director Clifton Theriot remembered his name, and the photos, when he read a genealogical research article about the Georgetown slaves.

“The article had a list of names of some of the slaves, and I recognized the name of Frank Campbell because I had seen it before in some of our collections,” Theriot said. “I pulled the album out and found it. One of the reasons that it stuck with me is the caption about when the stars fell.”

Judy Riffel of Baton Rouge, a genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, had already traced Campbell’s family and been in contact with Campbell-Coleman in December. She confirmed that the archived photo was Campbell, probably taken in 1905 when he was about 92.

Riffel learned that Campbell’s son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren worked for a prominent landowner whose family owned the photo album. The photo “validates it when we have a paper trail,” she said.

Flatboat to Terrebonne Parish

The Memory Project’s research says Frank Campbell was born in about 1819, on one of five Maryland plantations owned by Jesuits. The priests needed to raise money to save the college they had started, now known as Georgetown University.

They sold 272 lives for $115,000. Among them was Campbell and his parents, who were among the first shipped to the heat, humidity and back-breaking labor of Louisiana plantations.

Researchers traced Campbell’s month-long sail from Virginia to New Orleans, then its trip by river flatboat, trailed by alligators, to a sugar plantation in Terrebonne Parish, La.

Georgetown folklore, Cellini said, holds that all the sold slaves died of yellow fever in the South. But most apparently survived.

Campbell-Coleman’s own father, still in Louisiana not far from where Campbell landed, looks much younger than his 94 years. “Us Campbells are tough,” she said.

That Campbell was very much alive is documented through the values placed on his life: $5 at age 2; $40 at 12; $420 when he was sold in the late 1830s; $1,150 in a January 1851 plantation inventory; $2,320 when he, his wife and their baby were sold together months later.

He had married another Georgetown slave in 1850. They had at least four children together and, once freed, bought a plot of land near Houma, La., for $50 in 1882. A cousin still lives in a house once occupied by Campbell.

Campbell and his wife Mary Jane disappear from records after 1910. He is believed to have died between 1910 and 1920.

Throughout his long life, he remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith that had forsaken him.

Admission to Georgetown

Georgetown convened a group of faculty, students and alumni in 2015 to work on recommendations for acknowledging the university’s ties to slavery, including the 1838 sales.

In September the university said it would take several steps, including renaming some buildings for slaves. School leaders said they would create a memorial to the slaves who were sold and establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies. The school will also give descendants “the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process.”

Cellini says they deserve more. Georgetown, he said, should treat the descendants as they would any other benefactor, including preferential admission but also free tuition.

Campbell-Coleman, who has five grandchildren, likes the idea of preferred admission but hopes the school will also offer scholarships and pre-admission help for descendants.

But she’s also busy connecting a family that’s bigger than she ever imagined.

She grew up in New Jersey but both her parents were from Louisiana. After retiring in 2014 as a registered nurse with the Mecklenburg County Health Department, she had time to explore her family’s roots.

The Georgetown project enlarged her research and turned her in new directions. Part of the extended family, she believes, remained in Maryland after hiding in the woods as slaves were being rounded up to be sold. She wants to find them.

It’s time, she says, for a big family reunion.

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