The New York Times
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
MARCH 12, 2017
He was an enslaved teenager on a Jesuit plantation in Maryland on the night that the stars fell. It was November 1833, and meteor showers set the sky ablaze.
His name was Frank Campbell. He would hold tight to that memory for decades, even when he was an old man living hundreds of miles away from his birthplace. In 1838, he was shipped to a sugar plantation in Louisiana with dozens of other slaves from Maryland. They had been sold by the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests to raise money to help save the Jesuit college now known as Georgetown University.
Mr. Campbell would survive slavery and the Civil War. He would live to see freedom and the dawning of the 20th century. Like many of his contemporaries from Maryland, he would marry and have children and grandchildren. But in one respect, he was singular: His image has survived, offering us the first look at one of the 272 slaves sold to help keep Georgetown afloat.
These rare, century-old photographs of Mr. Campbell help illustrate the story of those enslaved men, women and children. We shared that story with you back in April, starting a conversation about American institutions and their historical ties to slavery that has engaged many readers.
The photos had been stored in the archives of the Ellender Memorial Library at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., not far from where Mr. Campbell was enslaved.
Clifton Theriot, the library’s archivist and interim director, made the connection late last year after stumbling across an article in a genealogical quarterly about the Jesuit slaves who had been shipped to Louisiana. He was startled to see Mr. Campbell’s name listed among them.
“I thought, ‘I know this name,’” Mr. Theriot recalled.
He went into the archives and pulled out a small, black photo album from the early 1900s. Mr. Theriot went through the album, page by page, photo by photo, until he found them: three photographs of a bearded, elderly black man with pearly white hair.
Underneath was a handwritten notation. It described the man as having been born in “Moreland” or “Mereland,” probably referring to Maryland, Mr. Theriot said.
And it identified him as “Frank Cambell our old servant 19 when the stars fell.” The fiery meteor shower of 1833 was so memorable that many people used it to date important moments in their lives.
Mr. Theriot knew he was on to something: “I was like, ‘This is the guy.’”
He reached out to Judy Riffel, the author of the article that had inspired his search through the archives. She is the lead genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, a group founded by Richard J. Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus, to identify the 272 slaves and their descendants.
Ms. Riffel began digging through records. She discovered that Mr. Campbell had bought a small lot after the Civil War and kept his ties to the Roman Catholic Church. His son, his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren all ended up working for Robert Ruffin Barrow Jr., a prominent landowner. The photo album in the Ellender library had belonged to Mr. Barrow’s family.
In December, Ms. Riffel visited Nicholls State University, examined the album and conferred with Mr. Theriot. That same month, she confirmed that the man in the photograph was Mr. Campbell, who had been sold from the St. Inigoes plantation in Maryland in 1838.
She described the discovery as “momentous.”
Earlene Campbell-Coleman, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Mr. Campbell, said, “It took my breath away.”
Ms. Campbell-Coleman, a semiretired nurse in Charlotte, N.C., received the photo in an email from Mr. Cellini last week. When she saw her great-great-great-grandfather’s face for the first time, she wept.
“It really makes it real,” said Ms. Campbell-Coleman, who learned in December that her ancestors had been enslaved by the Jesuits. “It was almost as good as having him come to stand right here.”