THOMAS: Legacy is Everything, But Legacy Status is Not Enough

Shepard Thomas

Originally published in The Hoya, July 1, 2018

Shepard Thomas (COL ’20) is a descendant of the GU272 and a student at Georgetown. Shepard and his sister, Elizabeth (GRD ’20), joined members of The Hoya on an investigative reporting trip in Louisiana. The project was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalismand SaxaFund. Read more here: http://www.thehoya.com/category/features/tracingthe272/.

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to have a family who was able to invest in my education. This education wasn’t forced upon me; I used this support from my family to further my academic career.

After learning in 2016 that I am a descendant of the 272 slaves sold down to Louisiana in 1838 to save Georgetown University, I applied to the university and was admitted as a transfer student.

One of the few concrete actions Georgetown has taken to address its legacy of slavery is to offer descendants legacy status in admissions, a decision announced Sept. 1, 2016, after a recommendation from the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. 

I’ve come to realize that the help I received, which ultimately led me to enroll in Georgetown, is not the same support other descendants need.

The origins of my education, which for most of my life took place in New Orleans, can be traced back to my great-grandparents. In the late 1920s, Milton and Julia Green decided to send their children over 100 miles away to the city of New Orleans, with the goal of them receiving a quality education and economic opportunity, options not available to them in Maringouin, La.

The publicity surrounding the events involving my ancestors and Georgetown has not only led me to enroll at this university but also to travel for the first time to the town my family once called home. 

A large number of descendants are still located in and around Maringouin, a town of about 1,000 residents. 

Last month, I went to Maringouin for the first time, with my sister and student journalists from The Hoya. Heading into the trip, I anticipated meeting some of my relatives for the first time and gaining an understanding of where my family came from.

This weeklong trip felt like travelling into the past. It became evident to me that there wasn’t much of a future being provided to the people of Maringouin. As of today, there are no secondary schools in the town. To attend high school, teens in Maringouin must make a 58-mile commute to Plaquemine High School, which is located on the south end of Iberville Parish.

In Maringouin, only 14 percent of residents have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the average household income is $36,518, well below the national average median income, which hit a record high of $59,039 in 2016.

In a town lacking a proper educational system and economic opportunity, Georgetown’s policy providing legacy status in admissions for descendants in Maringouin lies at the end of a path littered with large, seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

During my encounters with different people in Maringouin, it became clear that Georgetown’s legacy status has yet to be properly announced to this small town. In fact, many people had little to no knowledge of Georgetown’s involvement in their ancestry.

I expected to have amazing conversations with residents who were descendants about our shared connection to Georgetown during this week in Maringouin. After meeting many uninformed descendants, I realized it is unrealistic for many residents to be aware of the things that Georgetown has been saying and doing, as that news has mainly been announced in national news publications. 

Ultimately, Georgetown cannot expect information in The Washington Post and The New York Times to reach this town, especially considering some residents do not know they are descendants.

As I went through the town searching for people to talk to, I ended up being more informative than I expected. Confused and frustrated, I hoped to eventually speak to some people who were familiar with Maringouin’s connection to Georgetown.

One afternoon, while I was at the gas station in town, I happened to run into somebody who would provide one of the most important conversations that I had on my trip. His name was Bertrand Woolfolk. Woolfolk asked my colleagues and I what we were doing in Maringouin, to which I replied I was a descendant of the GU272. After hearing this, Woolfolk said that he happened to be a descendant as well.

Once I told him who my grandfather was, I could immediately see a glimmer in his eyes. Not only did Woolfolk know my grandfather, but he told me that we were related.

Woolfolk was kind enough to drive us to his grandmother’s property, which is located just east of my family’s property in Maringouin. In fact, all of the land along that stretch of Bayou Road is still owned by the descendants of our common ancestor, William Harris, the son of two of the people enslaved then sold to save Georgetown.

We interviewed Woolfolk in the back of his grandmother Edith “Nook” Woolfolk’s home, the same place he said she would sit with my grandfather, her first cousin, and talk many years ago.

Woolfolk has lived in Maringouin and worked in construction his entire life. At 53, he only has one more year until he reaches retirement. As a child, he spent many days at the home of his grandmother, who worked in the sugar cane fields in her years of youth, while her husband Ernest Woolfolk drove a bus.

During our interview, Woolfolk recalled some of his grandmother’s beliefs that still stick with him today, despite her having died some years earlier. In particular, he told me that whenever a breeze would blow from the bayou and hit her house, she would say that they were receiving a blessing.

Though she told many stories while sitting on her front porch, Edith Woolfolk didn’t speak much about where her parents and ancestors had come from. Only in recent years and with the genealogical work of his sister has Woolfolk been able to discover his connection to Georgetown University.

Nearing the end of our interview, I asked Woolfolk what he believed Georgetown and the Jesuits owed the people of Maringouin. He replied, “Nothing.”

Woolfolk was one of the few people I had encountered in Maringouin who had some knowledge of Georgetown’s involvement in the community’s past, and this statement left me dumbfounded.

Woolfolk and I ended up talking back and forth, and he eventually asked me what I thought Georgetown should do to help Maringouin. I pointed out that Georgetown is an institution of learning that our ancestors helped build, but many Maringouin residents, a large portion of whom are descendants, have not had the benefit of higher education. In fact, very few people in Maringouin have had easy access to a secondary education.

Woolfolk replied that he felt a breeze come from the bayou, which led him to agree with me. Yet he still questioned what practical support Georgetown could deliver to the people of Maringouin. Being that Maringouin’s population shrinks every year with more and more young families moving away, Bertrand wondered what Georgetown could do to help the next generation of Maringouin residents succeed.

I believe Georgetown should provide the people of Maringouin more accessible assistance. It is a slap in the face to the descendants for the administration to only offer them legacy status in admissions. The people of Maringouin have so many educational and financial obstacles to surmount before they can even consider going to college. Even a local secondary school would be more beneficial to descendants in this area than legacy status.

Without the educational aspirations of our great-grandparents, my sister and I wouldn’t be students at Georgetown, making up half of the descendants currently enrolled in the university. If I wasn’t a student at Georgetown, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write about my family’s involvement with the school in The Hoya.

Though my great-grandparents were fortunate enough to help their children receive a better education outside of Maringouin, it cannot be assumed that all of the descendants had the same opportunity. If the students of Maringouin had the early education opportunities they deserve, many more of them would be attending Georgetown with me.

Georgetown still prides itself on the history of the early Jesuits, who “sought through their schools to educate the whole person — mind, body, and spirit. Georgetown focuses not only on conveying information and intellectual content, but also on building a home for wisdom, where all dimensions of students’ lives will be enriched.” This mission, visible on the university website, has informed education at Georgetown for generations.

If this is the case, there should not be so many descendants in Maringouin benighted to the university’s involvement in their town. What is the purpose of offering legacy status to people who are unaware it is an option?

Going beyond just the future for the youth in Maringouin, what benefits can Georgetown offer descendants who are non-school-aged, uninterested in attending the university or unable to be accepted even with legacy status they receive? One hundred and eighty years since the sale of their ancestors, what can the descendants in Maringouin and beyond receive for the betterment of their lives?

I’m not here to say I have the answer, but I know legacy status is not sufficient. The most important detail Georgetown should be focusing on is restoring the community of descendants, not offering them a far-from-guaranteed opportunity to attend school on the Hilltop.