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New Connections

Ogden Leaders Kaitryana Leinbach and Hannah Richards Discuss Their Oral History Project
New Connections

From the left: Roger Ogden, Hannah Richards, Kaitryana Leinbach, Dean Jonathan Earle

When Ogden Leader recipients Kaitryana Leinbach and Hannah Richards walked into an HNRS class titled “272 Slaves: Discovering Louisiana’s (and Georgetown’s) Past” in Spring 2017, neither expected a transformational experience. 

“I chose this class at first because I needed a humanities general education requirement, and this one popped out to me as the most exciting coming from a STEM background. If it's going to be a humanities class, it might as well be something interesting,” Leinbach said wryly.

Leinbach, who is majoring in Chemical Engineering and Physical Theatre, found to her surprise that the class was the only one that semester that she consistently enjoyed attending.

“I had such a good time in the class I wanted to continue it,” she said.

Richards, a psychology and international studies major with a minor in French, did not anticipate the course would be any different from another seminar.

“But after the first day of class I immediately knew I had made the right decision,” she said.

The course, which was taught by Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle and Director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Jennifer Cramer, aimed 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.  

The concept for the course grew out of the discovery that in 1838 a group of Jesuit priests who ran what is now Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved African-American men, women and children to three plantations west and south of Baton Rouge. Efforts to locate the descendants of these enslaved persons led by a group of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists in 2015 brought them to Louisiana, where most of the descendants still live today.

Kaitryana Leinbach and Hannah Richards

During the class, students conducted interviews with descendants of the slave sale to preserve their stories for future researchers. Leinbach and Richards both took Dean Earle’s course and were inspired to expand upon their initial foray into oral history after the course ended. Originally partners for their class project, with Leinbach as the audio engineer and Richards as the interviewer, the two embarked on a research project to interview seven additional descendants, mostly in Maringouin, Louisiana. An Ogden Leaders award funded their research.

“The students in the class did a phenomenal job coming to terms with some of the most difficult topics in American history: racism, forced migration, families ripped apart to serve the interests of those who owned other people,” Earle said. “Yet, the relationships I saw forged among the students, teachers and the amazing GU 272 descendants made it one of the most memorable teachings experiences I’ve ever had. I’m delighted Hannah and Kaitryana continued their work to interview even more people.”

The Roger Hadfield Ogden Leaders Program enables Honors students who possess extraordinary ability, commitment and imagination to pursue a self-guided project of significance to the state of Louisiana. As many as five Ogden Leaders per year receive up to $5,000 each to support self-designed, off-campus experiences, enabling them to pursue a passionate interest, develop independent leadership abilities and contribute to society in a way and to a degree not otherwise possible.

“We got their life stories, and then any ancestry that they remember,” Leinbach said. “Then we asked about any interesting cultural things that were pertinent.”

During the course of their interviews – in homes in Maringouin and New Orleans – Leinbach and Richards found that some descendants actually attend Georgetown University now. Using the funds from the Ogden Leaders award, the two traveled to Washington, D.C. to interview the descendants, as well as the professors and students involved in the initial research.

Georgetown Exhibit

With the results of their interviews, Leinbach and Richards have compiled their audio to create an exhibit at Hill Memorial Library.

“The exhibit is the manifestation of all of what we've been doing throughout the class, as well as with the Ogden Leaders scholarship,” Richards said. “They have the recordings from all of the interviews that we did, specified into different branches. There’s also a transcription of what the interviewee is saying, so you can also have that audio component of actually hearing them say it.”

Each interview is organized into a category – from history, to civil rights, to church and state conversations. Leinbach noted the importance of having both the audio and the text, as the combination allows the audience with to connect with the interviewee.

“It’s like you're almost there, and you're in their home with them,” she said. “So you get to hear their unique perspective on a circumstance.”

One such circumstance involves a civil rights event where an activist was chased into a church by police. He eventually fled the church in a hearse.

“Everyone has the exact same memory of that event, but the specific details are a little bit different depending on what they thought was interesting at the time,” Leinbach said “So it's really cool to see the same thing that happened retold by eight different people.”

Both Leinbach and Richards plan to join the Peace Corps upon graduation. Leinbach sees herself as a chemical engineer later down the road, with a focus on the environment and EPA regulations. She says that taking the Honors course and receiving the Ogden Leaders award has demonstrated for her the value of a liberal arts education.

Georgetown Exhibit 2

“It gave me a unique understanding and appreciation for Humanities courses,” she said. “There are so many things that happen when you try to take a holistic approach to education and you don't just focus on what you are intending to do with your career, you kind of go and take a humanities class or an English class.”

After serving in the Peace Corps, Richards hopes to eventually get her Ph.D. in child psychology. She added that conducting the interviews and leaning into the Ogden Leaders project instilled in her the desire to do a thesis.

“It’s been all about the process,” Richards said, “You learn a lot about yourself and your work ethic, because it's really kind of like thesis work on the side. You learn a lot about time management and how to deal with all of this and still do your 15 to 18 hour course load.”

Their message to their fellow Honors students is to apply for the Ogden Leaders award, and see what happens.

“It opens a lot of doors,” Richards said. “Georgetown University -- I don't think we would have gone there without the award, or just having these relationships with the descendants. The descendant that we visited in Georgetown? We still text and tell her happy birthday.”

“I would encourage everyone to apply if you're passionate about a certain topic, then you should find a way to make that something that can contribute to Louisiana,” Leinbach added. “You never know, you might just have a year of growth.”

Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis.