272 Slaves: Student Perspectives
This spring, Honors students are taking a course taught by Dr. Jonathan Earle, dean of the Ogden Honors College, and Jennifer Cramer, director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History. The class, “272 Slaves: Discovering Louisiana’s (and Georgetown’s) Past,” focuses on Georgetown University’s sale of 272 enslaved African-American men, women, and children to plantations in south Louisiana.
The Ogden Honors College is documenting this class through a series of articles and student blog entries. Click here to read the first article in the series.
The following was written by Taylor Stirling, a freshman business management major and Stamps Scholar from Franklin, La.
We started the year off learning about the history of slavery in the western world, particularly in conjunction with higher education. Before this class, when I thought of slavery, I pictured plantation homes and large fields in the 1800’s. As we learned, however, slavery existed in the Americas as far back as the 1500’s, when the Jesuits used slaves to help raise colleges and missions in South America. Even in our country’s origins, when the United States was neither “united” nor “states,” the British colonies used slavery heavily to finance new universities. Slavery was continually used to support higher education; I never knew about this side of slavery or how long it had persisted. It is still strange to me to imagine our universities, now champions of social justice and progressivism, only existing today because of slavery.
As we continued our studies, our focus turned to slave narratives: stories written by enslaved people themselves. These was especially impactful. There’s a big difference between learning about slavery and learning about slaves. It was often both moving and horrifying to learn what the enslaved went through, case by case. We read about how families were torn apart, how hard the slaves had to work every day, and how unforgiving and inhumane most slaveholders were. One memorable day the class met in Hill Memorial Library and held in our hands the diary of a slaveholder [Bennett R. Barrow of West Felciana Parish] who mentioned how frequently he beat his slaves, just as casually as he described the weather. To read the words of the enslaved and page through tangible diaries and documents made slavery much more real to me, and made it harder to believe a whole nation could allow such an atrocity.
One of the most memorable narratives we read is Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, which was later made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2013. As I read Northup’s story, I was shocked to see something very familiar to me: my home, St. Mary Parish. Despite the focus on sugar cane agriculture and abundance of antebellum homes, I never thought much about slavery in my area. However, Northup clearly describes how he was leased out to farmers in St. Mary and even played his violin at a party in a town very near mine. He also spoke of the Bayou Teche, which ran alongside our yard and was where I spent many days fishing and playing. This prompted me to do some research of my own, As it turns out, the 1860 US Census shows St. Mary Parish having over 13,000 slaves, one of the higher totals for the state of Louisiana. I suddenly began to picture what all the familiar cities and land I grew up around were like two hundred years ago. After learning all that we have, it’s difficult to imagine the place you call home as the same place where thousands of slaves toiled every day. However, that’s one of my favorite attributes of this class; it has made all of us confront the past, no matter how dark it may be, instead of ignore it like many do.
Everyone learned about slavery in high school. But not everyone learned about Solomon Northup, or the Alabama sharecropper Nate Shaw, or Boston Blackwell, or any of the slaves whose stories moved us and brought to light the not so pristine history of our country. HNRS 2030 has helped us learn more about our nation’s past and the impact slavery had on the development of our nation. In the coming weeks, we’ll begin the process of preparing oral histories of descendants of the original 272 slaves that were sold from Georgetown to Louisiana, the part of this class that I’m most excited for. However, even with only what we’ve learned now, this class has greatly changed my perspective, even on things so familiar to me as my home. It has had a profound impact on my education and I’m very happy I enrolled.