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‘I Feel Connected Now’

Six individuals who learned that they descended from slaves sold by Georgetown University over 175 years ago reflect on family and life

In the early 1830s, Georgetown University was running out of money. To raise funds, two Jesuit priests in charge sold one of their most valuable assets—272 slaves. Enslaved men, women, and children had toiled on the campus for generations, and constructed many of its iconic buildings.

The decision had far-reaching consequences.

On an autumn day in 1838, amid a flurry of chaos, the slaves were separated, and 130 were forced onto the Katharine Jackson, a vessel bound for a port near New Orleans.

The documentation of that journey and other aspects of the sale was buried in the archives by the Jesuits for generations.

In Louisiana, these slaves and the generations that followed gradually lost touch with the basic facts that had brought them to the Deep South. Their personal histories were lost. But clues remained. Many celebrated the Catholic faith. Some carried the middle name Georgetown. Others passed down the first names of slaves and the knowledge that they came from Maryland.

The story of the Georgetown 272 eventually came back to light. In 2015, following campus demonstrations, the alumnus Richard Cellini created the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project to identify the descendants of the slaves.

Meanwhile administrators, faculty, and students at Georgetown University and Louisiana State University have also been engaged with the descendants and their communities by creating podcasts, and collecting oral histories and other documentation.

To date, more than 1,000 living descendants have been identified by the Georgetown Memory Project. One group lives in Maringouin, La., about 100 miles west of New Orleans. In February of 2017, some of these individuals gathered in Rosedale, La., to share their stories. We followed up with six men and women to find out how the efforts by the universities to make them aware of the Georgetown 272 affected their lives.

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Cordelia (Dee) Taylor
I can say it. She can’t hear me, in the sense of it. But now I can tell you: My grandmother’s name was … Anne.
Every week that we left school on Friday and we came back, one of the routines was “What did you do the weekend?” And every student in that class that I happened to be in at that grade level would respond, we would say – 80 percent or 82 percent of those kids said – they went to who? Grandma. Nana. Whatever terminology of endearment, they got to say that. I never got to say it. And how many years am I? [Interviewer: Not yet 70.] Well, even with the 69, that’s a long time. I can say it. She can’t hear me, in the sense of it. But now I can tell you: My great-grandmother’s name was Letty, my grandmother’s name was Anne. My great-great-great grandmother’s name was Eleanor. I didn’t have that until the Georgetown. It makes me sad because of the rest of the story, but it elates me because I can tell a story.
Lee Baker
Somehow they were able to carve out faith that passed on to us.
When we went to, the first time we went to St. Inigoes – that’s the plantation where Nace and Bibey Butler were taken from – two or three acres are still there, to go there and say this is where it all began, that was a very emotional moment. I said, this is where they prayed. I thought about that. I wonder what their prayers were. I mean, like, how do you get … it’s hope out of the hopelessness? See, we talk about what’s called in Catholicism the theological emergence of faith, hope, and love. And I said, my God, somehow they were able to carve out faith that passed on to us. We call it faith now, "For All I Trust Him," F-A-I-T-H. Love in terms of giving, every day we Catholics talk about sacrificial love. They lived that, that wasn’t a theory. I teach that in my class, and it make me say, God, in the midst of all of this, in my mind initially hypocrisy, all the inconsistencies, they found meaning out of the meaningless.
Bernadine Poole
They are the ones that worked that land, that sweated, took those beatings. … They are the ones that deserve the money. I don’t deserve a dime of it.
I could sit there and be angry at Georgetown. I could be angry at the Jesuits. All that’s gonna do is run my blood pressure up, and all that. But in the end it won’t get me no more richer or anything. My grandmother and grandfather and all 19 of my aunts and uncles, they would be saying, “Baby, no. Uh-uh.” All them that come before them, they are the ones that worked that land, that sweated, took those beatings. They are the ones that did this. They are the ones that deserve the money. I don’t deserve a dime of it. I want Maringouin fixed. You help Maringouin. That’s what I want.
Ethel Murphy
The younger people – they want Georgetown to pay for their college education. Which to me, nothing wrong with that, if they can do it.
Now I’m quite sure you know, most of the people is trying to get Georgetown to pay for these – well, like my grandson; the younger people – they want Georgetown to pay for their college education. Which to me, nothing wrong with that, if they can do it. Because I don’t how they gonna get the amount of money – some of these people asking for a billion dollars. Some of the meetings I done been to, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. But I tell you what. I don’t know if it was Georgetown’s fault, or the Catholics, the Jesuit priests. Now – and this is what I say about it – they should be looking to Rome for some of that money. They the ones sold the slaves. And if they go to the pope, maybe they might get some money to send some of these young kids to, you know, school.
Louis Hawkins
I’d like to see [my grandchildren] get something out here and have a chance.
My daddy say we come from Baltimore, Maryland. Say that’s where we come, Maryland somewhere, that’s where we come, come here. He say his daddy’s daddy came here on a ship. Only thing I see is really not for me, is for my grandchildren. You know, if I’m involved, I’d like to see them, if they can get something out of it, I’d like to see them get something out here and have a chance.
Rayshawna Poole
Now that I know these names, I know these people, I know they existed, it’s real to me now.
I don’t remember learning a lot about slavery in school, not in the depth that I know it now. It was just brushed over. Oh, that happened and it’s gone. Felt like it didn’t apply to me, but I knew that it did because, the fact that, you know, we’re here in America. I knew our ancestors had to be slaves. But now that I know the names of the people and I know who they are and what they went through, I feel, I feel connected now, I guess you could say, cause I understand, I mean, that it is a part of my history. I guess I was kind of trying not to admit it or own up to it, but now that I know these names, I know these people, I know they existed, it’s real to me now.
Other articles from The Chronicle

How Craig Steven Wilder became a one-man truth-and-reconciliation commission on colleges and slavery.

American colleges are in a unique position, both practically and morally, to do justice to their own history of slavery.

The university’s effort to make amends for its past stands out for its scope, experts say, even though other universities may not be in a position to take similar steps.

Institutions like Georgetown University are going beyond markers and memorials in acknowledging their historical ties to slavery, even weighing reparations to descendants.