By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — Inside the parish hall of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New Orleans, the personal stories flowed as freely as the tears.
One by one, descendants of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold as a group in 1838 to a Louisiana plantation by the Jesuits who ran Georgetown University in Washington partially to relieve the school’s debts, described what it was like upon learning — through the meticulous records kept and maintained for nearly 200 years by the Society of Jesus — their hidden and bitter family story.
The sale of the 272 — known as the GU272 — placed them on a plantation in Iberville Parish in the town of Maringouin, located between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Others were placed on plantations in Ascension and Terrebonne parishes, which are like counties.
The first name on the slave manifest was Isaac Hawkins, who was 65 when he was sold from the Jesuits’ plantation in southern Maryland.
On Dec. 9 at St. Gabriel, Myrtle Hawkins Pace, Isaac Hawkins’ great-granddaughter, and her husband, Johnny Pace, described how their world was turned upside down when they received a telephone call in April from a cousin, who told her Georgetown University was renaming a building “Isaac Hawkins Hall” in honor of her ancestor.
They were living near San Francisco and had never had an inkling of Myrtle’s ties to the 1838 sale.
“I was absolutely astonished,” said Johnny Pace, “because here I am, married to Myrtle Hawkins, Isaac Hawkins’ (III) first born, and when I met her, I met her father and met her grandfather and they both were Isaac Hawkins. I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is astounding.’ It’s like having the sky drop in on you.”
The gathering at St. Gabriel was one of two listening sessions organized by the GU272 Descendants Association and the Society of Jesus, which was represented by Jesuit Father Tim Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, and Jesuit Father Bob Hussey, provincial of the Maryland Province.
Fr. Kesicki said the listening sessions with the Louisiana descendants of those who were enslaved were just the beginning of a lengthy dialogue process, “one of many visits moving forward.”
He reiterated what he told a large group at Georgetown April 18, when several campus buildings were renamed to honor the memory of those who were sold south.
Referring to the penitential rite at Mass, Fr. Kesicki said: “As Jesuits, we have greatly sinned, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do. Fr. Hussey and I are here today because we are profoundly sorry.”
“We share a history — a history that is the history of slavery,” Fr. Hussey added. “Jesuits in my province almost 200 years ago owned and sold enslaved people, and they were your ancestors, your family. It is hard for me to say that, but it is the truth, and we need to continue to face that truth.”
Fr. Hussey said one of the purposes of the Jesuits’ visit was to “extend the meaning and the grace and the conversation of those events” to a wider audience of descendants.
After meeting in New Orleans, they traveled to Maringouin, about 105 miles northwest of New Orleans. They also toured the Whitney Plantation, which gives an unvarnished account of the slaveholding economy in Louisiana in the 1800s.
“The history we share is painful,” Fr. Hussey said. “It is painful to remember the denial of human dignity and the suffering of slavery, imagining what your ancestors must have known. It is painful for us as Jesuits to recognize that our brothers, in blindness, would treat people in a way so contrary to the values we profess. We are all deeply ashamed by that.”
When the descendants took the floor, they described a variety of feelings and emotions. Linda H. Elwood said she found out about the slave sale only last year and wondered why it had not been made known more prominently.
“My mother is 92 years old and she just found out at 91,” Elwood said. “I’m 76 and I was 75 when I found out, and we were terribly hurt by this. I think there should be a way made that our children could be taught more about black history so they can know what’s going on in their lives, then and now.”
Sandra Green Thomas, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, said the Jesuits must seek reconciliation through concrete acts beyond renaming buildings on the Georgetown campus or giving descendants the regular benefits that the children of any Georgetown alumni or professors would receive.
“You have a tremendous amount of resources that you could use to uplift and support,” she said. “In Maringouin, they don’t even have a high school. People live in poverty. There are things you could do to ameliorate this.”
Walter Bonam, an associate with the New Orleans archdiocesan Office of Religious Education who moderated the discussion, said one of the sad ironies of the history of the GU272 is that the story is so well known now “because so many (of the descendants) have remained loyal to the Catholic Church that has not always been loyal to them, and it’s through baptismal records, marriage records and things like that that many of their names have become known.”
V.P. Franklin, editor of the Journal of African American History, said any eventual reconciliation has to include the idea of concrete reparations to descendants, particularly in educational benefits.
“So far it appears that the issue of reparations has been avoided by the people of Georgetown,” Franklin said. “(The Jesuits) need to be thinking in terms of how they can be making restitution, monetary restitution, for what they gained, what they stole from these enslaved people and make restitution to those people.”
He said one idea would be to guarantee education for descendants — at schools beyond Georgetown — so that those students don’t “graduate in debt.”
Fr. Kesicki and Fr. Hussey said the Jesuits and the GU272 are working on a process for future dialogue and consensus.
“This is a long time coming, and it’s a long road ahead,” Fr. Kesicki said. “I hope that we don’t wait until we’ve agreed on everything before we do anything.”
Finney is executive editor/general manager of the CLARION HERALD, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.