Jessica Tilson walks on soggy grass between the gravestones, rattling off names from her family tree, a thin black sweater the only barrier between her and the cold that came with a once-in-a-decade snowfall. She keeps the interwoven branches of her family in her head, along with a map of who’s buried in the unmarked parts of the Catholic cemetery in tiny Maringouin, La., – a rural town surrounded by sugar cane fields, bayous, and giant oaks.
Among those she honors by cleaning their graves is Cornelius “Neily” Hawkins, her great, great, great, great grandfather. Neily was about 13 when slave traders forced him onto a ship in Maryland and transported him to the West Oak plantation, where the sugar industry thrived through labor extracted by brutality.
The Jesuits who ran Georgetown University and plantations in Maryland had sold him, along with 271 others – including his brothers and sisters, his parents, and his grandfather, Isaac Hawkins, born just a few years before America gained its independence.
That 1838 sale wasn’t the first or the last the Maryland Jesuits made, but it was the largest, and some Jesuits opposed it at the time, despite their mounting debts. The names of the men, women, and children transported to various parts of Louisiana were recorded, and they have since become known as the GU272.
Now, Jesuit leaders are coming here for the first time – and Ms. Tilson hopes they will visit such sacred spots and hear the stories she’s unburied.
For many who hail from Maringouin (“mosquito” in French) and other parts of Louisiana, this December meeting will be their first opportunity to talk with representatives of the religious order that enslaved and sold their ancestors.
It’s another step in a reckoning that’s been unfurling in slow motion. For nearly two years, the connections between the 272 and several thousand living descendants have been emerging, impelling new relationships and debates about how best to address the modern-day legacies of slavery.
Unlike other historic American universities that held slaves and have since shed their religious identities, Georgetown “had to deal with the moral component of it, the way that it actually challenged Georgetown’s identity as a Catholic institution … committed to the Jesuit sense of social justice,” says Craig Steven Wilder, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Ebony and Ivy,” a book on universities and slavery.
“The human dimensions of the story” are unavoidable, Professor Wilder says, because “descendants of the sale of 1838 have put an extraordinary human face on these historical facts.”
Those descendants hold a diverse array of ideas about what should happen next – everything from modest requests to memorialize forgotten sites in Louisiana to a hope for a $1 billion foundation to address racial disparities, assist descendants with education, and support racial reconciliation.
“Although slavery in the United Sates ended many years ago, there has been a continuum of racial oppression…, and we have to heal those racial tensions in order for this country to move forward,” says Karran Harper Royal, the New Orleans-based executive director of the GU272 Descendants Association, one of several organized groups.
It’s a Saturday afternoon and descendants are arriving at the modest rectangular parish hall next to Maringouin's Immaculate Heart of Mary church. Many of the 272 maintained a Catholic identity despite years in which they were deprived access to priests, in violation of the terms of the 1838 sale.
Those ancestors “believed in God despite everything ungodly around them. I’m still humbled by that kind of faith,” says descendant Lee Baker, before the meeting that he helped organize gets under way. He needed resilience – which he now sees runs in the family – when he helped integrate Catholic institutions in the 1960s. Now he teaches at a Catholic high school near New Orleans.
One tall man saunters in wearing crisp denim overalls, another a three-piece-suit, until about 80 people are assembled in metal folding chairs. A table covered with a white cloth is set up in the front, where the Jesuits will sit.
For the older generations, especially, slavery isn’t something people talk about much here. But today’s conversation has been 179 years in the making.
Georgetown’s dependence on enslaved African and American families wasn’t a secret. But a few years ago, student journalists, activists, and a working group appointed by the university started questioning why people such as the Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., Georgetown’s president in the early 1800s, were still honored on campus buildings despite their role organizing the 1838 sale.
Alumnus Richard Cellini became curious about what happened to the 272. When he heard that they had all died of fever in Louisiana, his incredulity led him to search in Google and quickly connect with a descendant. Later he started the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project to assist with genealogical research.
The family trees have blossomed as people analyze DNA and dig into archives. So far, nearly 6,000 direct descendants (living and deceased) have been identified out of what could eventually rise to 15,000, Mr. Cellini estimates.
Last spring, Tilson and several other descendants attended a ceremony at Georgetown to replace Reverand Mulledy’s name with Isaac Hawkins on a now-residential building. President John DeGioia and representative Jesuits offered apologies during a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope.”
These were some of the steps recommended by a working group the university had appointed before they knew any descendants.
Now, several descendants are attending Georgetown, which has offered “legacy” admissions preferences.
Many descendants say they are grateful for what’s happened so far, but that it’s time for the process to become less Georgetown-centric and more inclusive of their voices.
It’s still unclear whether these large institutions will be willing to hold themselves accountable in ways that go beyond symbolism, that actually involve shifts in power dynamics or substantial monetary investments.
The next step is “talking about reparation,” says Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown who served on the working group. “What would be an adequate gesture of repair? That’s a lot of what people are debating.”
It has often seemed like the Jesuits wanted “to have their act of contrition, skip right over penance, and go straight to forgiveness,” says Sandra Green Thomas, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, who attended the Georgetown ceremonies, as well as a morning meeting with the Jesuits in New Orleans on this same December day that they’ll be visiting Maringouin.
She wants the outcome of talks to be action that benefits people beyond those who can attend Georgetown, but she also points out the irony that her two children now there will graduate with debt, despite financial aid, while Georgetown students once had tuition subsidized by the enslaved.
“My hashtag is #OurTuitionHasBeenPaid … with the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors,” Ms. Thomas says.
So far, institutions have been “reluctant to put dollar amounts on their acknowledgment of a debt,” Wilder, of MIT, says. If Georgetown and the Jesuits commit to reparatory justice, they could embolden others to push their universities to follow suit.
The Maringouin meeting has just gotten under way when Tilson scurries in. A single mother of two, she fits her visits to Maringouin in between shifts at two grocery stores in Baton Rouge, where she recently finished her bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the historically black Southern University and A&M College.
After Mr. Baker, the descendant, offers an opening prayer, the Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, stands to introduce himself.
Of his Jesuit predecessors who both baptized and claimed ownership of slaves, he asks, “How is it that they received the same sacraments, prayed the same prayers,… and failed to see themselves as equal before God?”
The room is quiet as he continues solemnly, “I am sorry to you, the descendants, but I also say before God ... that as Jesuits, we have greatly sinned in what we have done and in what we have failed to do…. I come [here] to understand what are the next steps in reconciliation, what are the next steps in healing this gaping wound.”
Tilson leans against the wall, in jeans and a Georgetown sweatshirt, recording with her pink cell phone.
The Rev. Robert Hussey, S.J., provincial of the Maryland Province Jesuits offers apologies as well, adding, “Healing ... is about concrete actions.... We want to explore with you what would be the most meaningful way … to be part of things that can create new life and new opportunities for people.”
For the next hour, local residents and those who have traveled from as far as Ohio and California rise to share their thoughts.
Some focus on the joy of discovering new family ties and answers to questions that always puzzled them: Why didn’t their families speak French or cook Creole?
Others offer specific ideas for how the Jesuits can make a difference.
Tilson strides up front and places a mason jar filled with black soil on the table, a dark blue ribbon tied around its neck, explaining that it is from Georgetown.
“What I would like for the Jesuits to do is to take the soil ... and go to West Oak and give our ancestors a proper burial.... The ones who died before the church was built ... we don’t know where they at,” she says, her voice rising in pitch as the emotions rush out. “They could have been thrown in holes over there, they have alligators back there.... So you guys owe our ancestors a proper burial.”
Fathers Hussey and Kesicki look up at her with compassion. They’re taking notes and holding off on responding until the end.
Other speakers bring up broader needs in descendant communities – prenatal care, assistance with college expenses. Among Maringouin’s roughly 1,000 residents (the majority descendants) the per capita income is $15,000.
“I feel like this is going forward and then two steps back. We are out here. We are looking for something to happen,” says Matthew Mims, a local aspiring dentist who recently graduated from college. He’s not the only one for whom patience with ceremonies and conversations is wearing thin.
But this is an opportunity for descendants to ask something not only of the Jesuits, but also of the large extended family seated before them. It’s a chance to challenge the institutionalized racism that slavery and Jim Crow left in their wake.
This is an area where notorious slave traders are still honored in whites-only cemeteries, where families still hold memories of lynchings.
Michelle Harrington, who long ago moved away, says she’s disappointed that in the church, blacks still sit on one side and whites on the other. “Sit on the other side,” she pleads. “Make somebody uncomfortable. We cannot be enslaved any longer.”
One of the last speakers to step forward is Johnnie Pace, tall with silver hair, glasses, and a black jacket. He’s married to a descendant of Isaac Hawkins, and shares how warmly he was welcomed at Georgetown during a recent unannounced visit.
“Granted, we can’t change history…. But we can change the future and we can change today. I am 74 years old,” he says, pausing and pounding his fist to hold back tears. “I never thought that I would live to see the descendants of slaves, the descendants of slaveholders, come together in love.”
Kesicki and Hussey stand and respond, briefly but earnestly, to what they’ve heard. They share how they’ve hired archivists to ensure that more church records are made accessible online, how they want to spread awareness of this important story.
They assure the group that they will follow up soon about setting up a process for further dialogue.
While there will be no official ceremony today, they do pay a visit to the cemetery with Tilson and a few others after the meeting. She points out the small, broken headstone of Lucy Ann Scott, her great, great, great, great aunt who was sold in 1838 and was buried near the graves of Tilson’s own sister and son. Maybe they could supply a new headstone for Lucy, she suggests.
Standing on the grave of another relative sold in 1838, she barely takes a breath, sharing as much as she can fit in before twilight. Hussey shakes his head and smiles. “Astounding,” he says.
In the years leading up to 1838, “Y’all supposed to send us back to Liberia, but y’all didn’t,” Tilson says without a hint of bitterness.
In the distance, a train rumbles by. It’s slow, like the building up of trust.
The air grows colder by the minute and Kesicki and Hussey head out before darkness engulfs the rural roads.
“I’m happy because I got an opportunity to show them what happened,” Tilson says. “That child you sent to Maringouin, this is their spot – this is their resting spot.”
*Reporter’s note: By mid-January, Georgetown and the Jesuits were circulating a set of draft principles for collaborating, and asking descendant groups for feedback. Kesicki reflected on the Maringouin meeting in a phone interview: “It was only there, face to face, that I felt personally the pain of those who have come to know who held their ancestors enslaved.”