In January of 2016, I received an email from a colleague at the Times. She told me that she had received a note from Richard Cellini, a corporate executive she knew, who happened to be an alumnus of Georgetown University. He was pitching a story about an 1838 slave sale, organized by powerful Jesuit priests, who were trying to raise money to save the struggling college, which was the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning. My colleague remembered that I had done archival research for my first book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, which chronicled the lives of Mrs. Obama’s enslaved ancestors. So she forwarded the email to me. As soon as I saw that email, I knew. My work on Mrs. Obama’s family had allowed me to explore how slavery had shaped American families. This story would allow me to take the next step, to explore how slavery had shaped American institutions.