In the fall of 1838 the Jesuit priests who ran what is known today as Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved African-American men, women, and children to three plantations west and south of Baton Rouge. The sale helped pay off the college’s debts and saved the institution from financial ruin.
In the fall of 2015 a group of Georgetown professors, students, alumni, and genealogists began searching for the descendants of these 272 slaves. Their efforts led them to Louisiana, where most of their descendants still live, and to Maxine Crump, a descendant of Cornelius Hawkins, who was 13 years old when he was sold by the college.
Crump, who runs the nonprofit Dialogue on Race Louisiana, was driving to her hometown of Maringouin when she found out about Cornelius Hawkins.
“My car was going, but my mind stopped,” she told a class of Ogden Honors College students when she visited in February. “I was thrilled, filled, and expanded.”
Crump told students that she had often wondered about where her family came from and why they were Catholic. Now, she finally had some answers.
Crump’s story, and others like it, form the crux of the Ogden Honors College course “272 Slaves: Discovering Louisiana’s (and Georgetown’s) Past.” The course, which is being taught by Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle and Director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Jennifer Cramer, aims to help students understand the history and legacy of slavery in the United States, the internal slave trade, and the effect these institutions have on our historical present.
Though the course deals with the larger issues of race, money, and higher education, it stays true to the event that inspired the class. In partnership with the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, students will conduct oral history interviews of the descendants for their final project.
Students will team up so that one is responsible for leading the interview, doing the background research and asking the questions, while the other student operates the equipment, takes photographs, and keeps track of paperwork,” Cramer said. “Then they'll switch roles for another narrator.”
The students will also preserve the interviews for future research. After they have completed the projects, Cramer said that they would be made available to researchers through LSU Libraries Special Collections.
The story of the 272 gained national attention last spring when The New York Times published an article profiling Georgetown’s efforts to identify descendants and make amends. It was after reading this article that Dean Earle, who is also an associate professor in the LSU Department of History, got the idea to create the course.
“The story of the Georgetown 272 is a perfect way to teach about our shared past and present,” Earle said. “The links between Georgetown, Maryland, and Louisiana are so strong.”
Earle decided to collaborate with his colleagues at Georgetown, where students are simultaneously taking either a class on the historical context of the slave sale or a class on social justice and documentary media. The three classes regularly interact through Skype, but met in person this week when Georgetown students visited LSU on their spring break. During the visit, the combined classes visited the Whitney Plantation and met with descendants of the slaves who were sold.
College courses on slavery are nothing new, but the course’s unique structure makes slavery’s legacy more immediate. Students are tracing real people from the past and how they shaped the present.
Dean Earle hopes that this experience will help change the way students view the world long after the class is over.
“Most of the best teachers I know took a class in college that, because of content or the instructors or the subject matter, ‘blew their minds.’ I very much want this to be that class. And from what I hear from the students from both LSU and Georgetown, they’re having that experience.”
This article is the first in a series on the Georgetown 272 slaves course. Check back throughout the semester to read more about the visit from Georgetown students, student perspectives on the class, and their oral history projects.
Allison S. Howell, Ogden Honors College