As the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in America, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is known for its prestige, status and money, but the university went through some tough financial times. In the 1830s, things were so bad, the university's future was up in the air.
At just 13 years old, Cornelius Hawkins helped the school pay off its debt. But you won’t see his name on any university buildings or memorials. It can only be found on a document in the school's files.
Maxine Crump is his great-great-granddaughter. She grew up in the small country town of Maringouin, Louisiana and never knew that her family is part of the reason Georgetown still exists today.
But that changed in late January when a Georgetown alumnus named Richard Cellini gave her a call. “He’s telling me that he thinks there is maybe a connection to my family to those who were owned by the Jesuits who ran Georgetown and he said some names have come up that are connected to you,” she said. “And when he said Cornelius Hawkins, it was almost no question.” In 1838, Georgetown's presidents decided to sell 272 of the school's slaves to keep the school running. The deal would be worth about $3 million today and it included black men, women and children. One of those children was the young Cornelius Hawkins.
Cellini created Georgetown Memory Project and hired several genealogists, including Judy Riffle, to track down the descendants of these slaves.
“They were put on three different plantations in Louisiana: one in Maringouin, another in Terrebonne Parish and another in Ascension Parish near Donaldsonville.”
Cornelius Hawkins ended up in Maringouin, which is where Maxine Crump grew up. She was first black female news anchor in Baton Rouge and runs a non-profit called Dialogue on Race Louisiana. She is no stranger to conversations on race and she has always had questions about her ancestors that she thought could never be answered.
“Hearing about the slaves not really having last names and taking the names of the plantation owners, I just felt like I'd never really find out. Well, that wasn't what happened as I found out through the Jesuits. Those names were kept in records and that's how they were able to trace us,” she said.
The revelation came with excitement, pain and shock.
“The Catholic church owned slaves. I mean priests, Jesuits, whipped and owned slaves and then sold them to save a university to educate white people. That's just not right,” she said.
The Jesuit priests did allow the slaves to practice Catholicism. Ironically, it's Hawkins’ dedication to the Catholic Church that kept him in the record books.
“A lot of them also remained Catholic, so I could pick them up in the Diocese of Baton Rouge records when they married, had children and baptized them.”
(Above) The manifest of the slaves shipped on the Katherine Jackson of Georgetown to the Port of Alexandria. Cornelius, who is listed in the manifest, was a 10-year-old boy when was sent to Louisiana.
Riffle was also able to find death certificates of Hawkins family members in the state archives. Hawkins also pops up on the inventory records each time the plantation was sold. One document from 1851 shows that at 24 years old, he was worth $900.
Riffle was also able find out that Hawkins had been a slave at West Oak Plantation in Maringouin. It turns out that Crump grew up within 5 miles of that very plantation. She had always known it as a sugar cane field, but learned that it used to be a cotton plantation.
Riffle also thought she knew where Cornelius Hawkins had been buried, and once again it would be Hawkins’ Catholic faith that provided a trail for genealogists to follow, because there was only one Catholic cemetery in Maringouin.
Crump has been coming to this same cemetery her entire life to bury and honor her relatives. It’s just down the street from her home. What she didn’t know was that her great-great-grandfather Cornelius Hawkins was buried here too.
“I put flowers here because I decided if no one knows he's here, no one has probably put flowers,” she said. Several of the other Georgetown slaves are buried in the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Cemetery as well. Cellini thinks more than half of Maringouin's 1,200 residents are direct descendants of the Georgetown slaves.
“I would think there would be thousands of living descendants,” he said. As they are being tracked down, the issue of reparations has come up.
Crump would like to see scholarships for the descendants of those slaves and for them to be named as benefactors.
“I mean, you put names of the people that sold them and if someone had written a check for $3.3 million in today’s money their name would be posted in their honor.” Some would argue that slavery is a distant part of history, but Crump sees things differently.
“I am a little tired of people saying slavery is the past, let’s leave it in the past. What about Cornelius?”
The genealogists have started doing DNA tests to see if the slaves on different plantations were related. If you think you may be one of the descendants, click here for a link to the project organized by the Georgetown Memory Project and The New York Times.