In 1838, Jesuits sold off 272 slaves to pay college debt
April 17, 2016 12:00 AM
William Widmer/The New York Times
The broken headstone of Cornelius Hawkins’ grave leans against another at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery in Maringouin, La.
By Rachell L. Swarns / The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.
But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.
Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.
Now, with racial protests roiling college campuses, an unusual collection of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists is trying to find out what happened to those 272 men, women and children. And they are confronting a particularly wrenching question: What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival?
More than a dozen universities — including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But the 1838 slave sale organized by the Jesuits, who founded and ran Georgetown, stands out for its sheer size, historians say.
The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.
Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.
“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery.
Student demonstrations at Georgetown in the fall helped galvanize alumni and gave new urgency to the administration’s efforts. In November, the university agreed to remove the names of the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the sale, from two campus buildings.
One alumnus, Richard J. Cellini, who is a practicing Catholic and chief executive of a technology company, wondered if more needed to be done. He was troubled that neither the Jesuits nor university officials had tried to trace the lives of the enslaved African-Americans or compensate their progeny.
A white man, Mr. Cellini said he had never spent much time thinking about African-American history, but he could not stop thinking about the slaves, whose names had been in Georgetown’s archives for decades.
“This is not a disembodied group of people, who are nameless and faceless,” said Mr. Cellini, 52, whose company, Briefcase Analytics, is based in Cambridge, Mass. “These are real people with real names and real descendants.”
Within two weeks, Mr. Cellini had set up a nonprofit, the Georgetown Memory Project, hired eight genealogists and raised more than $10,000 from fellow alumni to finance their research.
Mr. Rothman heard about Cellini’s efforts and let him know that he and several of his students were also tracing the slaves. Soon, the two men and their teams were working on parallel tracks.
What has emerged from their research, and that of other scholars, is a glimpse of an insular world dominated by priests who required their slaves to attend Mass for the sake of their salvation, but also whipped and sold some of them. The researchers have used archival records to follow the slaves’ footsteps, from the Jesuit plantations in Maryland, to the docks of New Orleans, to three plantations west and south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The hope was to eventually identify the slaves’ descendants. By the end of December, one of Mr. Cellini’s genealogists felt confident that she had found a strong test case: the family of Cornelius Hawkins.
The Jesuits had sold off individual slaves before. As early as the 1780s, Mr. Rothman found, they openly discussed the need to cull their stock of human beings.
But the decision to sell virtually all of their enslaved African-Americans in the 1830s left some priests deeply troubled.
“It would be better to suffer financial disaster than suffer the loss of our souls with the sale of the slaves,” wrote the Rev. Jan Roothaan, who headed the Jesuits’ international organization from Rome and was initially reluctant to authorize the sale.
But he was persuaded to reconsider by several prominent Jesuits, including Rev. Mulledy, then the influential president of Georgetown who had overseen its expansion, and Rev. McSherry, who was in charge of the Jesuits’ Maryland mission. (The two men would swap positions by 1838.)
So in June 1838, Rev. Mulledy negotiated a deal with Henry Johnson, a member of the House of Representatives, and Jesse Batey, a landowner in Louisiana, to sell Cornelius and the others.
Rev. Mulledy took most of the down payment he received from the sale — about $500,000 in today’s dollars — and used it to help pay off the debts that Georgetown had incurred under his leadership.
A Familiar Name
After the sale, Cornelius vanishes from the public record until 1851 when his trail finally picks back up on a cotton plantation near Maringouin, Louisiana.
His owner, Batey, had died, and Cornelius appeared on the plantation’s inventory, which included 27 mules and horses, 32 hogs, two ox carts and scores of other slaves. He was valued at $900. (“Valuable Plantation and Negroes for Sale,” read one newspaper advertisement in 1852.)
The plantation would be sold again and again and again, records show, but Cornelius’ family remained intact. In 1870, he appeared in the census for the first time. He was about 48 then, a father, a husband, a farm laborer and, finally, a free man.
He might have disappeared from view again for a time, save for something few could have counted on: his deep, abiding faith. It was his Catholicism, born on the Jesuit plantations of his childhood, that would provide researchers with a road map to his descendants.
Cornelius’ children and grandchildren also embraced the Catholic church. So Judy Riffel, one of the genealogists hired by Mr. Cellini, began following a chain of weddings and births, baptisms and burials. The church records helped lead to a 69-year-old woman in Baton Rouge named Maxine Crump.
Ms. Crump, a retired television news anchor, was driving to Maringouin, her hometown, in February when her cellphone rang. Mr. Cellini was on the line.
She listened, stunned, as he told her about her great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Hawkins, who had labored on a plantation just a few miles from where she grew up.
All of this was new to Ms. Crump, except for the name Cornelius — or Neely, as Cornelius was known.
The name had been passed down from generation to generation in her family. Her great-uncle had the name, as did one of her cousins. Now, for the first time, Crump understood its origins.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Oh my God.”
Mr. Cellini, whose genealogists have already traced more than 200 of the slaves from Maryland to Louisiana, believes there may be thousands of living descendants.
Georgetown’s working group has been weighing whether the university should apologize for profiting from slave labor, create a memorial to those enslaved and provide scholarships for their descendants, among other possibilities, said Mr. Rothman, the historian.
“It’s hard to know what could possibly reconcile a history like this,” he said. “What can you do to make amends?”
When Ms. Riffel told Mr. Crump where she thought Cornelius was buried, Ms. Crump knew exactly where to go.
The two women drove on the narrow roads that line the green, rippling sugar cane fields in Iberville Parish, heading to the only Catholic cemetery in Maringouin.
They found the last physical marker of Cornelius’ journey at the Immaculate Heart of Mary cemetery, where Ms. Crump’s father, grandmother and great-grandfather are also buried.
The worn gravestone had toppled, but the wording was plain: “Neely Hawkins Died April 16, 1902.”