Originally published in The Hoya, June 12, 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/.
Maringouin, La. — Fourteen years ago, the family of Lee Baker, a 63-year-old theology teacher in New Orleans, unlocked a secret in their family history: They were descendants of slaves sold by the Society of Jesus in Maryland to four plantations in Louisiana in 1838 — a sale that saved Georgetown University from financial ruin.
Baker’s family’s roots in Catholicism, which had given way to generations of black Catholics who would continue the tradition of strong faith, went deeper than they had ever thought.
Before this discovery in 2004, Baker, who now teaches high school but was once on the path to priesthood himself, had observed discrepancies between the teachings and the actions of the Catholic Church. These inconsistencies weighed so heavily on him that in the 1960s, he temporarily led the push to establish an independent black Catholic congregation in New Orleans.
“Twelve years to be a priest and in my journey, I saw that especially with racial issues, the church was very hypocritical and inconsistent in terms of what I read in church teachings and what I saw in practice in Catholicism,” Baker said.
Despite never becoming ordained as a priest, Baker rejoined the church after the 1960s and has remained devoted to his faith. The discovery of where his family originated from has given new meaning to his ties to Catholicism.
Baker is the great-great-grandson of Nace and Bibey Butler, two of the 272 black people enslaved by the Jesuits who toiled in the Maryland plantations and were eventually forced aboard the Katherine Jackson, a ship headed south to Louisiana.
“It was always peculiar to us, why did they have in this little small swampy area outside of Baton Rouge so many black American Catholics?” Baker said in an interview with The Hoya.
Most of the 272 ended up at plantations in one of three parishes: Ascension, Terrebonne and Iberville.
Henry Johnson, formerly the governor of Louisiana, worked with another purchaser, Jesse Batey, to buy and transport 54 of the enslaved in July 1838 to labor in cotton, sugar and rice plantations. Thirteen years later, those slaves were sold to the Barrow family, whose plantation was situated in Maringouin, in Iberville Parish.
Johnson himself owned two plantations around Maringouin, which he farmed with slave labor, including that of slaves purchased from the Jesuits.
During the Civil War, a number of slaves in Ascension Parish would go on to serve in the Union Army; after, others would relocate to New Orleans, and some would convert from the Catholic faith instilled in them in Maryland.
For those currently connected to Maringouin, a town of fewer than 1,100 residents located about a half-hour drive from Baton Rouge, the town’s dark history is not out of sight.
“Maringouin is still very much so a time capsule, in the best and worst sense,” said Lauren Crump (GRD ’18), a descendant of the GU272 and a master’s student at Georgetown.
Maringouin’s current mayor, Demi Vorise, is the first black female to hold the position. In an interview with The Hoya, she described the community as tightknit.
“We’re a very small rural community,” Vorise said. “The majority of this community is family. Those descendants, their families are here in numbers.”
Sugar cane-packed fields, segregated cemeteries and the ghastly existence of a hanging tree just beyond the town limits mark its history with slavery and the Jim Crow-era South.
“I think about it all the time,” said Bertrand Woolfolk, whose great-grandmother used to work as a slave in Maringouin’s sugar cane fields. “I think about that in the hot nights, the cold nights, everything. That’s a rough one . . . that’s a hard pill to swallow. Those people had to be tough.”
Maringouin saw a time of bustling downtown businesses just after the turn of the 19th century, centered around its main road, Landry Drive. A movie theater, ice cream parlor and auto store decorated the area, and in 1903, the town’s first bank was established.
Today, Landry Drive still runs up the center of town but many of the businesses that dotted the street have shuttered down. The days that pass remain burdened by racial segregation in a town that is 84 percent black and 16 percent white, according to demographics data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2017.
The U.S. postal office, local grocery store and small gas station are the street’s most notable features, and Sunday church service remains the Maringouin community’s social hub.
Unlocking a Secret Connection
Through the genealogical work conducted by his cousin Patricia Bayonne-Johnson and aunt Dr. Onita Esthes-Hicks, Baker has learned more about what it was like for the men, women and children sold by the Jesuits from Maryland to plantation owners in Louisiana.
According to family lore, before the ship left the dock that day in 1838, two of Baker’s ancestors pleaded for rosary beads to take with them on the voyage, but when they asked for the beads, it was unclear who, if anyone, was listening.
“What greater act of heresy could there be than what the violations of the very tenets of Catholicism did to the dignity and the life of a human person?” Baker asked. “You enslaved somebody. What greater heresy can there be than that?”
Having previously reconciled with Catholicism and the perceived inconsistencies between talk and action within the church, learning about his family’s origins — and the origins of Catholicism in his family — did not sway Baker’s faith.
He can trace these characteristics of devotion and resilience back to his ancestors, who did more than endure in the face of the horrors of American slavery: His family flourished in Louisiana and beyond.
Not all descendants of the GU272 had access to their personal history. Genealogical research is a time-consuming, involved process, and the documents containing the names of those sold are not in the Louisiana archives — they are in archives of the Maryland Society of Jesus and Washington, D.C., many housed within the Special Collections at Georgetown.
For the majority of descendants, there was no way to connect their families to the sale without the 1838 Bill of Sale, the manifest of the Katherine Jackson and intense genealogical research. In many parishes in Louisiana, the court system routinely failed to record the names of the enslaved, leaving many black people in the dark as to the origins of their families.
Not until 2015, well after the presence of descendants was documented, did someone begin to track, locate and identify those descendants, as well as inform them about their connection to the university. Even then, it took an independent organization to initiate this work.
The Georgetown Memory Project, started by Georgetown alumnus Richard Cellini (COL ’84, LAW ’87) has taken the lead in the search for descendants across the nation. Cellini founded the nonprofit in 2015 after addressing concerns about what happened to the descendants to the university and receiving an unsatisfactory response.
Cellini hired Louisiana-based genealogist Judy Riffel, who had done work for Baker’s cousin, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, back in 2004. Since its founding in 2015, the Georgetown Memory Project has identified and located over 6,100 descendants.
In the last 2½ years, the descendant community has organized, and descendants are independently pushing forward with ideas of what true reconciliation would look like, as well as building on newfound connections established through the independent research of the Georgetown Memory Project and descendants themselves.
Expanding, Connecting and Organizing
The GU272 descendants in Louisiana and beyond are no longer waiting on university administration or the Jesuits to lead action.
Three descendant organizations — the GU272 Descendants Association, the Legacy of GU 272 Alliance and the GU272 Isaac Hawkins Legacy group — have formed, in addition to many descendants who do not belong to a formal organization but have been able to keep in touch through social media and email.
Descendant-led discussions include talks of financial reparations, a complex conversation to undertake 180 years later, as well as demands for memorialization efforts to educate the Georgetown community. The dialogue is becoming increasingly independent of the university.
Karran Harper Royal, the executive director of the GU272 Descendants Association, said although Georgetown has taken steps toward reconciliation, there has been an absence of descendant voices in the planning of previous university action.
“Georgetown has been excellent in including us in helping to implement their vision for what should be done. They have not been excellent in executing what we have communicated is our vision of what should be done,” Harper Royal said.
Given the nature of the decisions being made and the potential to directly change lives of the descendants, Harper Royal thinks the lack of transparency, communication and collaborative thought on the part of the university and the Jesuits does not reflect true reconciliation.
“We can’t have other people, 180 years later, making decisions for us. It’s just not gonna fly,” Harper Royal said.
Sparking a National Conversation
In November 2015, black student activists from Georgetown were among the first to draw national attention to the university’s rolein the sale of 272 slaves.
The student-led protests advocated for the renaming of two campus buildings, formerly Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, named after the two former university presidents and administrators of the sale of the 272: Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., then leading the Maryland Jesuits, and his lawyer Rev. William McSherry, S.J.
The demonstrators also called for increased memorialization of the enslaved on the school’s campus and the creation of an endowment for recruiting black professors, which would amount to the present net value of the 1838 sale, about $3.3 million today.
The demonstration culminated in a sit-in in Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia’s office. On Nov. 14, 2015, one day after student activists began their sit-in, DeGioia and the university board of directors changed the names of Mulledy and McSherry Halls to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.
DeGioia and the board of directors were acting on the recommendation of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, convened in September 2015 after uproar over the retention of the names Mulledy and McSherry on the newly reopened former Jesuit residence.
The group was tasked with making recommendations about how to acknowledge and address the university’s history with slavery. The 15 members included faculty, staff, students and alumni, who published their report and recommendations in the summer of 2016.
No descendants of the GU272 were included in the working group or their deliberations, and the descendants were denied access to the report before publication.
Prior to the release of the working group’s report and five months after the demonstration on campus, The New York Times published an article whose very title demanded an answer: “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?” This led many black people with gaps in their family histories and connections to Louisiana, particularly to the town of Maringouin, to begin piecing together their own family histories, just as Baker’s family had done years earlier.
Georgetown University spokesperson Meghan Dubyak said the working group was almost done with its work by the time descendants began to get in touch, and that the report was meant as a basis for future collaboration.
Based off of the recommendations in the working group’s report, the two campus buildings were renamed permanently — one to commemorate Anne Marie Becraft, a black woman who founded one of the first schools for black girls in Georgetown in the 19th century, and one named after Isaac Hawkins, the first name listed on the 1838 Bill of Sale between Mulledy and purchasers in Louisiana.
The immediate next steps for the university have to do with the memorialization aspect of the recommendations, according to Dubyak.
“We are committed to moving forward with this important work. Honoring the memory of the ancestors with a memorial on the Georgetown campus is a key step in this ongoing process,” Dubyak wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As we continue memorialization efforts at Georgetown, we will be engaging members of the descendant community to ensure their voices and perspectives are incorporated in any future plans.”
History Confronts the Present
Despite the Jesuits and Georgetown never searching for descendants of their slaves, some of the descendants have expressed appreciation for the detailed record-keeping of the university and the Jesuits. One of the working group’s recommendations that has since come into existence is the Georgetown Slavery Archive, an online source for materials relating to the Maryland Jesuits, Georgetown University and slavery.
“There is something we have been given with this story that is somewhat unique,” Baker said. “Not everybody can trace their families back to where we have. I am grateful that the Jesuits and Georgetown archived and preserved these records.”
For descendants who had not previously known their family’s origins, the ability to connect one’s family to the GU272, as well as examine what life was like for the enslaved before the sale in 1838, has proved illuminating.
“This is an opportunity for us to put names and faces to our ancestors. It’s not just that you came from slaves, you came from slavery, but we can actually say we came from these people,” said Brenton Mims, a descendant of Isaac Hawkins and resident of Maringouin.
While the Jesuits were thorough record-keepers in Maryland, documenting births, baptisms and marriages, many of the local Louisiana purchasers and Southern owners were not. For many black people across the country trying to trace their ancestry, the search comes to an abrupt end due to undocumented sales, trading and transportation.
“The records are still in the books of Iberville Parish,” Mims said. “‘Sale of a slave. Sale of a slave. Sale of a slave. Sale of a slave.’ No name, just listed like they sold lumber, cattle, anything.”
A Movement Begins
A piece of the university’s response to the renewed attention on the descendants was a formal apology, offered in April 2017 in conjunction with the Society of Jesus’s Maryland Province. Baker attended the liturgy, along with more than 100 descendants.
DeGioia is the first university president to meet with descendantsof the slaves who labored or were sold for an elite university, but the lack of descendant input in the working group and other events, as well as the slow-moving process to solidify further plans for reconciliation, remain points of tension.
“When they got together in April, they told us at the last minute about it,” Baker said about the liturgy. “It wasn’t enough time for people to really gain momentum or do reasonable planning to get there.”
A university spokesperson maintained that descendants were informed well in advance of the liturgy in April 2016, pointing to the descendants’ involvement in planning certain aspects of the week leading up to the liturgy, specifically the ceremony dedicating a tree outside of Isaac Hawkins Hall.
During the tree dedication ceremony, descendants read the names of the 272 and spread a jar of soil from West Oak Plantation, a plantation in Iberville Parish, La.
The university also began to offer legacy admission status to descendants.
Other recommendations from the working group include engagement with descendants through genealogical and academic research, as well as personal meetings. The working group’s report lays out that this engagement should be “attentive to the interests of the descendants themselves, as well as respectful of the diversity of opinion and interest among them.”
The group also recommended the creation of an oral history project with the descendants, marking and memorializing spaces on campus that are associated with slavery, creating an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown and investing in diversity at Georgetown through outreach, resources and funding.
DeGioia’s Chief of Staff Joe Ferrara is currently heading the descendant outreach efforts, and he said that a faculty committee has been established to move forward on the Institute for the Study of Slavery. A grant awarded in 2017 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a private organization offering grants to colleges and universities, is intended to contribute to this endeavor, which Ferrara said has included hiring faculty experts in the field, supporting postdoctoral and graduate fellows and funding a series of visiting lecturers.
Despite this response from the university, many members of the GU272 descendant community remain unsatisfied with the pace of dialogue thus far and feel the university is not acting on their recommendations.
“When Georgetown was responding, they did not really talk to descendants until after the fact,” Baker said. “While it was polite and kind of great that they at least publicly talked about it … what disappointed us was that it took the university too long to just listen to the descendants.”
Sandra Green Thomas, the mother of Shepard Thomas (COL ’20) and Elizabeth Thomas (GRD ’20) and the former president of the GU272 Descendants Association, said she acknowledges that the university is in a difficult situation.
“I understand President DeGioia is in an uncomfortable position. There are many alumni and donors who want no part of this, that think that we deserve absolutely nothing — not even the time of day,” Green Thomas said. “But as uncomfortable as his position is, I want him to think about the position my ancestors were in.”
After 180 years, the university and the Jesuits have not engaged in genealogical work to locate and identify descendants.
“In all your great university-ness, in all of your leadership, in all of your ability to affect change and put out people who change the world, that’s what you got?” Melisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21) asked.
At 63 years old, Short-Colomb is one of four descendants enrolled as students at Georgetown, marking the first cohort of descendants to attend the university that sold their ancestors while knowing the controversial past.
“In the beginning it was all about Georgetown,” Short-Colomb said. “Now it’s about descendants, because Georgetown is doing the same thing that they’ve always done — talking about what they’re going to do.”
Descendants Call for Action
Members of the grassroots descendant organizations have proposed the university and Society of Jesus involve themselves in efforts such as broadening educational opportunities in Maringouin, searching for and locating descendants of the GU272 across the country and expanding the conversation by using their resources: financial, academic and otherwise.
There are many descendants who are not interested in enrolling at Georgetown who still, however, want to pursue higher education, according to descendants in Maringouin and beyond. The Legacy of the GU272 Alliance is pushing for a scholarship fund that could help descendants not only pay for Georgetown should they choose to attend, but also for education at the state school of their choosing.
With the local middle and high schools having been shut down seven years ago due to low enrollment, some in Maringouin are calling for support in making education more accessible, as well as library resources and an adult literacy program.
Woolfolk said he wants to highlight a more solid foundation for his community in Maringouin — one that he sees as talented, yet resource-deprived.
“If they want to do something, come here and educate us, and throw out some money into a school system for our education,” Woolfolk said. “Let’s help the ones who can’t read or write, since the slaves couldn’t read and write. Help the ones who don’t have education. That’s the key.”
The pursuit of higher education is not one size fits all. Harper Royal is concerned about the descendants who are unable or uninterested in moving to Georgetown’s campus through legacy admission.
“[Legacy status] is of zero use. It is of zero use to probably 99 percent of descendants,” Harper Royal said.
And despite being overjoyed for the few descendants able to attend the university, Harper Royal realizes that it is a small percentage.
“It means almost nothing to others,” Harper-Royal said. “We have to have a proportionate moral response to the sale of our ancestors. Legacy status is not a proportionate moral response.”
Pivoting to Education
Years before the sale in 1838, Georgetown’s administration and the Maryland Jesuits were eager to do away with their plantation systems in Maryland, according to documents in the Georgetown Slavery Archive and the Jesuits’ archives. After going through a building phase in the early 1830s under Thomas Mulledy, in 1837, Georgetown found itself in 1837 in need of an immediate infusion of $25,000, in cash.
One report in the Georgetown Slavery Archives documents that Georgetown College had a practice of overspending, with alcohol purchases records of $1,300 being spent on beer, brandy, liquor and champagne in 1833.
Mulledy told the Jesuit Superior General that it was impossible to maintain both the farms in Maryland and Georgetown College — in his eyes the College could keep itself afloat by beginning to charge tuition, and in the interim, use the profits from the sale to pay off its debt.
Furthermore, abolitionists in the area had begun to condemn the Jesuits for their slaveholding practices. By 1836, the Maryland Jesuits had written several letters back and forth with their counterparts in Rome, several of which referred to a potential scandal and blows to the Jesuits’ public image should they sell their slaves South.
The sale of the 272 was authorized reluctantly by Jesuit authorities in Rome in 1836, under the express conditions that families not be divided, that the Catholic faith be maintained among the slaves and that all the profits of the sale be used for endowment, not for paying off debt. All three of these terms would be violated.
Despite the enormity of this sale, slaves continued to toil at Maryland plantations and on campus and would not see freedom until Emancipation in 1865.
An Incomplete Search for Reconciliation
As of right now, university researchers may build on the information submitted from descendants but do not initiate the search for additional descendants, Dubyak said.
“If individuals believe they may be descendants, we encourage them to provide whatever genealogical information they have to Georgetown,” she wrote in an email.
Despite the determined efforts of those at the Georgetown Memory Project, the task of piecing together family ties has largely fallen to the descendants themselves. But this, in turn, has strengthened their bond as a community.
“Right now, we’re creating relationships, building relationships, forming dialogues,” Crump (GRD ’18) said.
Short-Colomb said she hopes all those who have benefitted from the institution of slavery, not just the institutions at the head of the conversation, can begin some of the work of reconciliation themselves.
“We have survived for centuries while Georgetown knew that there were these people out there,” Short-Colomb said. “Our strength is in who we are, not in who Georgetown is.”
In reconciling with his own family’s history and the reasons why he ended up in Louisiana, Baker’s own faith and resilience have helped him understand why the descendants, not the university, should be the ones leading the conversation.
“Somehow, they found a way to make meaning out of the meaningless. Instead of being bitter, they became better,” Baker said. “We are not going away. We’ve been here since 1838, and we’re going to continue.”