Maringouin Residents, Georgetown Slave Descendants Grapple with Education Gap Fueled by Racial Disparities

Margo Snipe

Originally published in The Hoya, July 17, 2018

This article is part of series in a special project supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and SaxaFund. Read more here:http://www.thehoya.com/category/features/tracingthe272/.

As young boys, Brenton and Matthew Mims spent most of their time outdoors when they were not in school.

Underneath the sweltering Louisiana sun, the Mims brothers would hunt, fish and raise the family hogs. Their property’s 11 pecan trees scattered nuts across the lawn, and together the brothers would gather them — true country boys, as they describe themselves.

In their town of Maringouin, La., the two boys limited bouts of boredom by exploring the outdoors, attending to academics and studying scripture.

The town, located a half-hour outside Baton Rouge, is made up of a small, tight-knit community of people seemingly all linked by blood. Everyone is related in Maringouin, as residents say.

For many of the town’s residents, their common ancestry dates back to 1838. The year marks the sale of 272 slaves by the Society of Jesus from plantations in Maryland to four Louisiana plantations in order to save Georgetown University from financial ruin. 

The Mims brothers, descendants of Isaac Hawkins whose name is listed first on the 1838 Bill of Sale, believe there is a need to bridge the divide between the higher education that Georgetown University offers and the current state of education in Maringouin, a town made up primarily of descendants of the 272, and similar towns across the United States. 

With limited educational resources in Maringouin and the surrounding neighborhoods, descendants of the GU272 are calling for Georgetown University and the Society of Jesus to assist in increasing opportunities for education beyond its current offer to descendants of legacy status in admissions.

A Disputed Shift in Schooling

 

Now an elementary school teacher himself, Matthew Mims reflected on his upbringing in a town where in 2009, the secondary school was shut down.

“Seven minutes. We went from seven minutes to an hour,” Mims said about the time it now takes for students to get to school.

The closure of North Iberville High School forced students to transfer to schools on the south end of Iberville Parish — about an hour’s commute from Maringouin. The decision to close the school due to low enrollment hinted heavily at the underlying race relations that permeate the U.S. education system.

For high school, Mims attended the Math, Science and Arts Academy in Plaquemine and was a member of the first graduating class from the magnet school.

“It took three buses to get to school and two to get home, mainly because when the school closed, I had no choice,” Mims said.

The decision to close North Iberville High School came in April 2009, with a vote by the parish school board. Iberville Schools Superintendent Ed Cancienne cast the deciding vote to send the students in Maringouin to Plaquemine High.

The days surrounding the school board’s decision were filled with protests, petitions and rallies led by local leaders and families in Maringouin, including the town’s mayor, Demi Vorise.

Even after the decision was made, parents and community leaders continued in their fight, petitioning Cancienne and the school board to create a new Christian charter school in 2015. One of the leaders of the movement, Rev. John Jordan, the senior pastor at the Baptist Church in Maringouin, commented on how taxing the commute was for the children in Maringouin. 

“When I hear how early our students are getting up to catch the bus and how late they’re getting home, it’s very demanding on those young kids,” Jordan said in The Advocate, Louisiana’s largest daily newspaper, in 2015.

In their application for a charter school license, Jordan’s group proposed an estimated first-year budget of $2.3 million for a projected enrollment of 250 students, with the idea that the school would make use of technology to develop their curriculum and teaching styles.                                                       

Despite the continued efforts, the proposed charter school did not gain traction, and students in the area who wish to attend middle or high school must still make the daily commute to Plaquemine.

Plantation House Turned Public School

 

The now-shuttered North Iberville High, burrowed in the United States’ Deep South, was once the site of Shady Grove Plantation, built by Isaac Erwin and completed in 1856.

Long after the plantation system in Louisiana dissolved, the racial dynamics of the Jim Crow era continued to seep into education.

In 1918, the Iberville School System acquired Shady Grove Plantation and turned it into Shady Grove School, the traditionally all-white predecessor to North Iberville High. It served the northern region of the parish as an elementary, middle and high school. From 1918 until 1942, students attended high school inside the plantation house.

The neighboring all-black school, T.A. Levy School, now Rosehill Baptist Church, was opened in March 1953. In May 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling ordered all schools in the United States to be desegregated. The Iberville Parish School System, like other school systems in the Deep South, dragged its heels.

More than a decade later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the full desegregation of schools in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi by July of the 1969-70 school year.

In 1970, 16 years after the Brown ruling, Shady Groove School and the T.A. Levy School were fully integrated. T.A. Levy was closed in 1992, and a new wing was added to Shady Grove School named the T.A. Levy Building.

Together, the schools were renamed North Iberville Elementary and High School. Frustrated by integration, many white families moved out of Maringouin or placed their children in private schools, marking the beginning of a pattern of white flight in the area. The school became predominantly black.

Forty years later, in 2009, all secondary students had to transfer secondary schools when North Iberville High was shut down.

Remnants of Segregation

 

Brenton Mims said the decision to close the high school in 2009 was motivated in part by race, as many of the white families sent their children to private schools or schools outside the parish.

“As long back I can remember, it seems like, ‘We don’t want our kids going to school with your kids’ — like black kids going to school with white kids,” Brenton Mims said. “There was actual segregation in schools near here that were created during times of desegregation.”

According to a number of Louisiana residents, segregation in the state’s school system continues to this day.

“I can probably name on my hand the five white friends that I went to school with from elementary until I had to leave North Iberville,” Matthew Mims said. “They did not want Caucasians going to school with the African-Americans.”

For Maringouin’s families, the closure of the town’s high school meant the loss of a community hub. Maringouin was already a small town — home to just over 1,000 residents, according to 2017 data from the United States Census Bureau — but its population has decreased each year.

Vorise, the first black woman to serve as mayor in Maringouin, said maintaining the community very much depends upon the existence of the school.

“If there is no school, in theory you don’t have a community, because the school is very important in ensuring that your community thrives and survives,” Vorise said.

The Fight for Equality

 

Concerns about limited resources do not end with secondary education in Maringouin.

According to the Census Bureau, while 34 percent of white people in Maringouin attained a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016, only 9 percent of black people attained the same level.

While Georgetown announced in September 2016 that it would offer legacy status in admissions to descendants of the GU272, many descendants are calling for an increased emphasis on primary and secondary education, especially in Maringouin and towns located in the three other Louisiana parishes to which the enslaved were sold.

Though the three formal GU272 descendants’ organizations and individual descendants vary in opinions concerning what Georgetown University, the Maryland Jesuits and the Catholic Church should offer the community, there is collective agreement that education should be a primary focus.

Sandra Green Thomas, a member of the board of directors of the GU272 Descendants Association, is calling on the Jesuits to provide the youth with a solid foundation for their future by assisting with early education in Maringouin and the greater Louisiana area. Thomas is also the mother of Elizabeth Thomas (GRD ’20) and Shepard Thomas (COL ’20), two of the first GU272 descendants to attend Georgetown University.

“If you catch them while they’re young, you can really make an impact with their outcomes later,” Thomas said. “Assist with giving [the Maringouin community] accommodations, because without that foundation, you’ll always be scrambling to catch up, just to keep your head above water.”

Other GU272 descendants’ organizations have echoed the same sentiment. Matthew Mims, a member of the Legacy of the GU272 Alliance, believes Georgetown has the resources to provide a holistic education: one that builds skill and morale.

“I would like to see Georgetown visit the areas that are out here, and the areas that are around Georgetown as well, and educate the children on what they can do to better themselves, on what they can do to push themselves forward, and let them know that they are not limited,” Matthew Mims said.

In a community where 20 percent live below the poverty line compared to the 15.1 percent nationally according to census data, descendants are confident that Georgetown and the Jesuits’ resources could have a tremendous impact.

“Promote education in the town,” said Brenton Mims, who is a graduate of the Southern University Law Center. “We don’t have a school anymore, and there are a lot of older adults that need more education to just further themselves in life.”

The Iberville Parish School System is not the only route to increasing educational resources, according to the Mims brothers. The brothers said a library filled with books, better desktop computers and increased hours — as many libraries in the area are only open two days a week — may help revitalize the community.

GU272 Descendant’s Association President Cheryllyn Branche has seen the Jesuits actively provide education within their own institutions and said she believes that small communities like Maringouin can benefit from similar assistance and resources.

“We know how to do education. It’s a matter of choosing to do it in areas where you can have the biggest impact. Start small and grow,” Branche said. “If you build it, people will come. People will come to support it.”

For Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), one of the four descendants currently enrolled at Georgetown, the conversation about education and race stretches beyond Maringouin, concerning the nation as a whole.

“How do we make education in America equal for all Americans, so we can be better?” Short-Colomb said. “It’s an American education conundrum that needs to be corrected, and brilliant minds and academia and commerce and industry need to put their minds together to repair this.”