My Trip Back Home

Elizabeth Thomas

Originally published in The Hoya, June 3, 2018

Elizabeth Thomas (GRD ’20) is a graduate student in Georgetown’s Master of Professional Studies in Journalism and a descendant of the GU272. Elizabeth and her brother, Shepard, joined members of The Hoya to do original investigative reporting in Louisiana. The project was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and SaxaFund.

MARINGOUIN, La. — Growing up in New Orleans, I always knew that my mother’s paternal family came from Maringouin, La., and had deep roots in the community there. Years before I was first able to set foot in Maringouin, I developed a deep knowledge of my family’s ties to the area from family reunions and folklore.

My grandfather, Shepard Green, would talk about his childhood in Maringouin and his decision to eventually leave the town to get an education in New Orleans, over 100 miles away. My mother would talk about her summer vacations, reuniting her with cousins and older members of the family on the family property that was passed down through generations.

I was fortunate to grow up with a family that loved to talk about our history, and from these stories, I gathered that my family was as integral to Maringouin’s history as Maringouin was to my family’s history.

I already knew my great-great-grandfather, William Harris, who was born a slave in 1850, had donated part of his land to the Catholic Church in 1897, land that provided grounds for a new church and starting the first school for African Americans in town.

For years, these stories were all I knew of my family’s connection to Maringouin. But in April 2016, Rachel Swarns wrote an article for The New York Times titled “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”

My mother, an avid reader of The New York Times, noticed the graveyard featured on the cover story was that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the church built in Maringouin after William Harris donated his land.

My mother wondered how and why Maringouin ended up on the cover of The New York Times. After doing her own research, she discovered our ancestors Sam and Betsy Harris, the parents of William Harris, were two of the people enslaved and sold by the Society of Jesus to save Georgetown University from financial ruin.

The names Sam and Betsy Harris were familiar to me and to my family. We always knew who Sam and Betsy Harris were, as they were the parents of William Harris, who had given so much back to the Maringouin community. We prided ourselves on being able to trace our family history back that far. However, despite all that we knew, we had no idea that we had ties to Georgetown or even that the university was connected to Maringouin.

This detail is what made this story so peculiar for me: As a family that loved talking about our history, how could we have no knowledge about this chapter of our story?

This discovery, prompted by the article in The New York Times, brought me to Maringouin for the first time. It was a year after Swarn’s story came out, and I went to do an interview with National Public Radio host Noel King and my mother. That first trip, I walked around in a sort of daze.

It was a lot to take in — coming to the place that I heard so many stories about, having this brand-new perspective on my family history and finally being able to walk through the town of my ancestors. Most of my time on that first trip was spent processing my emotions and trying to put myself in the shoes of those that came before me.

It was not until last month on my second trip back to Maringouin, with my brother, Shepard, and a team of journalists from The Hoya, that I was able to really take a hard look at this community, my community.

We started our trip to Maringouin on a Sunday morning, with 9 a.m. Mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I was initially nervous, especially about inserting myself into a community that I felt was mine but knew nothing about.

As soon as we walked in, the first thing I noticed was the obvious racial separation among the people in the pews: The majority of black people were sitting on the left side of the church, while the majority of white people were sitting on the right. My grandfather and mother often spoke of the racial tension between blacks and whites in Maringouin, but this was my first time seeing it with my own eyes.

Racial division and tension was not something we were imagining — it is a daily reality for the people living in this area, according to Maringouin’s mayor Demi Vorise, the first female black mayor in the town’s history.

“The issue of race here is so tense, you would think we’re still living in the Jim Crow South, or you would think we are still in slavery,” Vorise said in an interview with The Hoya’s team. “To walk into a building of the Lord, and you see whites on the right and blacks on the left — that’s a problem. I could say it over and over, loud on top of the building, because I am adamant about that; it’s an issue.”

I soon observed how central Catholicism was to the resilience of the community, a connection that had remained equally strong in my own family, even after moving away from Maringouin.

The service was a special baccalaureate Mass to honor high school graduates in the community. Following the service, my brother and I took the opportunity to introduce ourselves to some of the residents over cake, hoping that someone would be connected to our family.

There is a long running joke in Maringouin that everyone in town is related, so we were not at all surprised to find people who immediately knew our family or had some sort of relationship with the Greens or the Harrises. We even ran into a cousin whom I had never heard of before.

I spoke to many people who identified as lifelong Catholics and were descended from the 272 enslaved people sold by the Society of Jesus. I heard about how some of their families had always been Catholic but still had no idea of where that Catholicism had originally come from.

This same narrative applies to me and my family. I grew up going to Mass, and I even graduated from a Catholic high school. My grandparents were Catholic and regulars at their church.

I was told that we were Catholic because we always had been Catholic. Little did I know that Catholicism was most likely introduced to my ancestors during their enslavement, before they were sacrificed for the existence of one of the most prominent institutions of higher education in this country.

Once we left the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we traveled to the segregated graveyard where my ancestors are buried. As I walked the grounds, the secrets buried beneath the grass and dirt consumed my thoughts.

I walked past the row of my ancestors wondering what they had known about their existence in Maringouin. How could the knowledge of how Georgetown altered our family’s trajectory never have been passed down through the generations still wrestling with the consequences of the sale? Were they ashamed of their past? Was it too traumatic to even speak about, so they buried their history as a coping mechanism?

The answers to these questions I will never know. For most of my life, I did not even know that my family’s history stretched past Maringouin, north toward Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Georgetown. For 23 years, I believed that I knew my family’s history, only to find out that I only had a piece of the story. I could not help but wonder: Why were these secrets kept hidden for so long? Why did the gatekeepers of my family’s history, and so many others in the community of Maringouin, work so hard to bury these truths?

These questions continued to weigh on my mind when our group stumbled upon my family’s property after being lost for 30 minutes. The first trip back home I took, the time I came last year with my mother, we drove past the acres of land owned originally by William Harris, but I stayed in the car.

This time, something compelled me to get out the car and explore the property with my brother and the group. These moments on our family’s land were the most gratifying part of my trip back to Maringouin.

Growing up, I heard fantastic stories about summers and family reunions on that very land, about my mom travelling up to Maringouin with her cousins. I heard about how huge the property was, about the many restless days and nights on the land and mostly about all the fun my mom had with her siblings and cousins. This was something my siblings and I always felt like we missed out on.

On this second trip back home, I got a tiny glimpse into what those summers might have been like for my family. It truly was incredible, seeing those acres upon acres of land and imaging my wild and loud family having a blast in the Louisiana heat.

It dawned on me that the enormous amount of land that William Harris was able to buy and that our family was able to maintain until this day was acquired by the son of those that were enslaved and sold across the country, Sam and Betsy Harris.

How was it that the son of those sold into a life of unimaginable misery in the Deep South, years before emancipation, was able to acquire this amount of land? Why did he feel the need to plant his roots in this community? It was, and still is, incredible to think about the resilience of my ancestors, the other 272 enslaved people and their descendants.

I have come to realize that this is a town filled with history, filled with secrets and filled with the unknown. It is a town just discovering its history, and thus, a people just discovering themselves.

It is a place with such a strong Catholic foundation, and it is a place that to this day struggles with racism and segregation. I cannot help but believe that this can be attributed to Georgetown University, the Society of Jesus and its decision to sell 272 enslaved people to plantations in Louisiana. I only wish the leaders of these institutions would realize the impact they had and continue to have on Maringouin and do real work to improve the lives of those still living there, 180 years later.