- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

MARINGOUIN, La. (AP) - Driving back to her hometown of Maringouin to visit a relative in February, Maxine Crump picked up her cellphone to answer a call. In that moment, her understanding of her family history changed forever.

The stranger on the other end had a question: Did the name Cornelius Hawkins mean anything to her? Crump, a former Baton Rouge television news anchor turned community activist, responded that the name Cornelius had been passed down through her family for several generations.

Richard Cellini, the man who called, then revealed his startling news: He was convinced the name belonged to a 13-year-old boy who was sold in 1838 by the Jesuit priests, along with hundreds of other slaves, to raise money to save the school that would become Georgetown University. That boy, who like the other slaves ended up at a Louisiana plantation, turned out to be the 69-year-old Crump’s great-great-grandfather.

“It was like an area of my life had opened up that has been closed,” Crump said.

Crump was driving down Rosedale Road, a narrow, two-lane stretch of highway enclosed by lofty trees and rural farmland in a northern corner of Iberville Parish.

“It seemed like the car was going but I had stopped,” she said. “A whole screen of things was happening in my body - my mind. It was like a movie trailer that went up and down inside me and filled wide.”

Crump’s discovery could end up repeated hundreds, potentially even thousands, of times.

Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus who founded a nonprofit called the Georgetown Memory Project dedicated to finding the descendants of the slaves, believes there could be many Louisiana families who can trace their ancestry back to that group of forced migrants to the state.

“This is the time to speak up and identify themselves as descendants,” Cellini said.

A thorny history

Nearly 180 years ago, the Jesuit priests running the Catholic institution of higher learning that would become Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., had racked up debts, finding themselves without the financial resources to grow.

To bail them out, they looked to the enslaved black men, women and children who toiled on Jesuit-owned agricultural land in Maryland.

The solution turned out to be a sale of at least 272 slaves, from the just born to the elderly, purchased in 1838 by Louisiana plantation owners. Slaves were rounded up for the difficult voyage south, sailing from Alexandria, Virginia, to New Orleans before mostly ending up at rural plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes.

Adam Rothman, an associate professor in Georgetown’s history department who has delved into this story, described the sale as a two-fold success for the Jesuits. It allowed them to disinvest from the institution of slavery, he said, while at the same time raising enough capital to pay off debts and build out the university.

In the decades before the Civil War, this was just one transaction in the relentlessly cruel slave marketplace. But the significance of the sale for one of the nation’s premier Catholic universities came back into focus this past school year, provoking introspection throughout the university about an institution’s duty to confront the most unseemly parts of its past.

Part of this discussion has reverberated down to Louisiana, as The New York Times in a recent detailed chronicle of the sale highlighted the difficult question of what responsibility Georgetown has to the descendants of people who were not only held in bondage but sold off like livestock.

One reparations possibility that has been floated is providing descendants of the 272 slaves with scholarships to attend Georgetown. But first, more descendants like Crump need to be identified, traced back to the original group of slaves.

‘That’s just not possible’

That is a task that Cellini has taken on. The chief executive of a Massachusetts-based technology company, Cellini raised $10,000 and launched his nonprofit in the wake of student protests in the fall of 2015 that eventually spurred Georgetown to remove the names of two Jesuit priests involved in the slave sale from buildings on campus.

Georgetown last fall became the latest in a string of universities to reflect on its connection to the slave trade. President John J. DeGioia assembled a panel of faculty, students and alumni called the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to tackle how the school should acknowledge its past connections with slavery.

On the other hand, Cellini’s focus was specific, finding out more about the human beings who were sold. He sent an email to a high-ranking university official with a simple question: “Hey, what happened to the slaves?”

The official responded that all the slaves died of fever two weeks after arriving in Louisiana, leaving no traces or descendants.

“I looked at that email and said, ‘That’s just not possible,’ ” Cellini said.

He used the money he was able to raise to hire several genealogists he knew had experience in piecing together the fractured lives of American slaves.

One of his first calls in November 2015 was to Baton Rouge genealogist Judy Riffel, who he knew had helped a Louisiana family trace its lineage to the Georgetown slaves more than a decade ago.

“I start with documents, of course that first sale,” Riffel said. “This is not traditional genealogy. I had to create spreadsheets to track all the slaves through time. It’s a puzzle. Detective work.”

This work is so difficult because slaves rarely left detailed paper trails before the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, she explained.

A majority of the slaves were split between the West Oaks Plantation near Maringouin and the Chatham Plantation in Ascension Parish, which was then owned by Henry Johnson, the fifth governor of Louisiana. Some also ended up on a plantation in Terrebonne Parish, she said.

Riffel had to spend hours upon hours combing through the names included on the manifests of the ships that brought the slaves to Louisiana. She also used sale agreements for the plantations they were sold to, probate inventory lists, church records, census reports and even marriage certificates she found at local courthouses.

“The ones in Maringouin have been the easiest to track down because they stayed together as a community more than the others,” she said. “A lot of them continued to live on West Oaks Plantation after the owner died and post-Civil War.”

Two descendants

Her efforts initially uncovered two women with blood ties to the group of people sold to West Oaks Plantation.

One was Crump. After learning about how her ancestor came to Louisiana, Crump later discovered Cornelius “Neely” Hawkins’ body was buried at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Maringouin. The grave is essentially unmarked, as the headstone is toppled, leaning against another grave marker. Crump had passed by the cemetery countless times growing up in the town, never knowing a central figure in her family’s history was buried there.

“I always wondered how that side of the family had become Catholic - because, most blacks are not Catholic,” she said. “Legacy and history has always been important to me. It just made me know how much more important and valuable it is to who you are today.”

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson shares a similar story. But the 75-year-old woman learned about her family’s ancestral connection to Georgetown University a decade prior to Cellini’s efforts.

Her family hired Riffel in 2004, leading to the discovery that her great-great-grandparents, Nace and Biby Butler, were also part of the 1838 slave sale. Nace Butler passed his name down to his son, who then passed it down to Bayone-Johnson’s grandfather, Nace Hicks Sr.

“At the time, we didn’t know Nace was a family name that had been passed down,” said Bayonne-Johnson, who was born and raised in New Orleans but now lives in Spokane, Washington.

‘It was appalling’

Like Crump, Bayonne-Johnson’s family held onto their Catholic roots, which had been instilled in their enslaved ancestors by the Jesuits. Many of the slaves continued their Catholic faith amid the often violent struggles they had to endure in the South.

However, the truth about how her family came to be in Louisiana temporarily tested Beyonne-Johnson’s faith.

“It was shocking, it was appalling,” she said about finding out priests had once owned and sold her ancestors. “Never once did it come up in all the Catholicism and history classes. No one ever mentioned the Catholics being involved in slavery.”

It didn’t bother Crump, who is no longer a practicing Catholic, as much. She said the discovery helped her see the Catholic Church for what it really is: an institution like any other in the country, which operates on the attitudes and principles held by individuals in society.

That is why she had no hesitation suggesting Georgetown hand out scholarships to the descendants of the 272 slaves whose lives saved the university close to two centuries ago.

“The state of Louisiana, the church and Georgetown should all be held accountable,” she said. “Their labor made Louisiana a very wealthy state. My great-great-grandfather’s life was valued at $900. That’s not enough for a lifetime of work.”

Crump, now the executive director of the nonprofit Dialogue on Race Louisiana, also wouldn’t mind seeing the names of those slaves engraved in stone somewhere on the Georgetown campus.

“The money they got from that sale is valued today at $3.3 million,” she said. “If a benefactor had written a check for $3.3 million, their name would be somewhere on an honored plaque - or a building.”

Rachel Pugh, a spokeswoman for Georgetown University, said no decisions regarding scholarships for descendants have been made, but recommendations are expected soon from the Working Group.

“The working group has a wide range of possibilities, and I am sure scholarships are among them,” Pugh said in an email.

In the meantime, Cellini and Riffel are hoping to track down more descendants. Riffel said she has managed to find a handful of other people who could be living descendants of the slaves. The New York Times article published last month has sparked more leads, with the newspaper asking her to verify the lineage of about 10 more people living in various parts of the country with ties to Maringouin.

Cellini estimates there could be between 12,000 and 15,000 living descendants.

Anyone who thinks they might be one of them is asked to submit information on the New York Times website, which is aiding in his organization’s effort.

“Too many people treat this as an abstract, historical issue,” he said. “They don’t understand these are real people. These individuals and descendants are members of the Georgetown family.”


Information from: The Advocate, https://theadvocate.com

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