Almost 180 years ago, the college now known as Georgetown University was in serious financial trouble. Then-President Fr. Thomas Mulledy made the decision to sell 272 African men, women, and children the college had been holding as property to pay off the debts. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Isaac Hawkins, was one of the enslaved Africans sold, along with his wife and children.
Many people who hear this story are surprised and saddened to learn of the Jesuits’ involvement in the ownership and enslavement of Africans, but unfortunately this was a reality during that era, as much of early American industry was fueled by slave labor. What's interesting for me is the connection to the Catholic church was an important part of discovering the history of my ancestors.
The story goes that Father Mulledy authorized the sale on the condition that the families would be able to practice their new Catholic faith, so the majority were sold to the West Oak plantation in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. Genealogists were able to trace many of those named in the sale to church records at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Maringouin, where they had settled and built new lives for several generations onwards.
Growing up I remember my grandfather saying his own grandfather had come as a slave from the Eastern shore of Maryland. My mother has been gathering our family history for decades but most of the facts regarding slavery, plantations, etc. had been hard to obtain. We now know that Jackson Hawkins, Isaac's son, was only 3 years old when he arrived in Louisiana. Jackson and his older brother Cornelius “Neely” Hawkins are buried just feet away from my grandfather and others in my family. I would have never thought we would be able to confirm my grandfather's story and learn more about how our family came to settle in Maringouin.
Graves of Cornelius "Neely" and Patrick Hawkins, sons of Isaac Hawkins
Through the advocacy of students and alumni Georgetown University leadership has acknowledged the school's role in slavery and has begun to take steps to explore opportunities to repair this travesty.
On April 17, 2017, the University has removed the names of two of those involved in the sale and will rename one building in honor of my 4th-great-grandfather, Isaac Hawkins. The 2nd is in honor of Anne Marie Becraft, who created a school for black girls in the area. There's not many things that have brought me such a mix of emotions as seeing this sign and thinking about what this means for my family and the other descendants of those 272, and I'm so happy to be able to come here to see it. I also honor and respect those students and alumni who pressed GU leadership to move beyond words to make sure this does not get forgotten.