The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgetown’s priests sold her Catholic ancestors. Then she found out in an unexpected way.

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson holds a photo of her great grandparents and their son. The retired science teacher cracked the mystery of what happened to the descendants of the slaves Georgetown sold. In 1838, Georgetown sold 272 slaves to clear its debt. (Nick Otto For The Washington Post)
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Patricia Bayonne-Johnson’s family members never talked much about their history. Some were perhaps afraid of what they would find if they dug too deep. For decades, questions about who her ancestors were, where they came from, and details of their lives went unanswered.

That changed on a spring day in 2004. Bayonne-Johnson, who grew up in New Orleans but was then living in Berkeley, Calif., had asked a genealogist to find answers for an upcoming reunion. And the inquiry’s results, in an envelope, had arrived.

The package bore four documents. The first two described sales. Her ancestors had been sold, she learned, from one slave master to the next, across Louisiana in the mid-1800s. The next document enumerated an inventory of slaves belonging to one of them.

The last document was the oldest. It offered an even greater surprise: The origins of Bayonne-Johnson’s family didn’t lay in Louisiana, but in Maryland. They came South by way of a sale orchestrated by one of Maryland’s leading Jesuit priests in 1838. That man, Thomas Mulledy, then the president of Georgetown University, had sold 272 slaves to pay off a massive debt strangling the university.

In Bayonne-Johnson’s hands, experts say, was the earliest known research into what became of the descendants of the Georgetown slaves. Before last autumn’s uproar over whether to rename a campus building named for Mulledy, before researchers announced a nationwide search for the descendants of the slaves he sold, and before the New York Times called national attention to their quest this spring, there was Bayonne-Johnson, sitting at her desk, trying to reconcile what she had just learned. Her deeply Catholic family had been sold by Jesuit priests.

“Patricia Bayonne-Johnson was the first person I know of whose research revealed a connection between the slaves sold in 1838 and their living descendants,” said Adam Rothman, a Georgetown University historian who’s studying what happened. Her work came at a time, he said, when most Georgetown scholars “didn’t think about or know about what had happened. No one had thought to look into it.”

The revelations have ushered in another bout of soul-searching at Georgetown as the university grapples with its role in slavery at a time of heightened racial tension in America. It’s trying to determine what, if anything, the descendants of the people sold now warrant.

The university’s president, John J. DeGioia, met with Bayonne-Johnson on Monday as a first step toward reconnecting with the descendants. A university committee has also recently provided him a list of recommendations on how to respond to the slaves’ progeny, according to task force chair David Collins, who declined to specify what the report said. It’s expected to be made public this summer.

“What we’re going through now is a moment of heightened curiosity,” Collins said. Every month, dozens of descendants learn their family’s history. The story is spreading through Louisiana, where there could be thousands more.

But back in spring 2004, it’s likely the only family that knew of this past was Bayonne-Johnson’s — and she had a big decision to make. Should she keep it a secret? “In African American families, a lot of things you don’t talk about,” Bayonne-Johnson, 75, said. “You just don’t. You don’t talk about slavery. They just want to forget it and leave it in the past.”

Still, she didn’t feel that was right. Others needed to know. So she dug deeper, and in the years that followed Bayonne-Johnson exhumed a past that both disturbed and emboldened her. She began publishing her findings — first in an obscure genealogical journal, then in an even more obscure personal blog.

And that’s how her family’s story, which diverged from Georgetown nearly 180 years ago, converged once more.

A clue in an old census

Her father’s family had planned a big get-together, and Bayonne-Johnson, who was nearing retirement after decades of teaching high school biology, decided it would be nice to construct a family tree. Everyone had always assumed her great-grandfather had been a slave, and she recalls her relatives’ elation when they learned he wasn’t.

“We were doing the happy dance,” she said.

The next year there was another reunion, this time for her mom’s side. Maybe, she thought, another family tree was in order. So she teamed up with her aunt, Onita Estes-Hicks, to see what they could find on the New Orleans family.

Estes-Hicks, a retired professor with the State University of New York at Old Westbury, had long wondered about her family. How did they get to Louisiana? Where did their names come from? And, perhaps most curious of all, why were they Catholic? Most African American families are Protestant.

The Catholic Church was the foundation on which the family was built. Estes-Hicks said she can still imagine her father shuffling between the pews as an usher for Sunday Mass at a small New Orleans parish overseen by white priests and nuns. She called that clergy a “warrior class” that fought for their rights in the Jim Crow South.

The relatives asked a Louisiana genealogist named Judy Riffel to dig up what could be found on the Hicks family. Bayonne-Johnson sent Riffel baptismal and burial records, a pedigree chart and censuses. And Riffel set out for the courthouse in Iberville Parish.

Going in that day, Riffel knew it wouldn’t be easy. In her 35 years of genealogical research, she has investigated hundreds of families. She knew African American lineage was the most difficult to untangle. Slaves weren’t listed in the census until 1870. “To trace slaves back in time, you need to know who owned them, and it isn’t always easy to figure out,” she said. “But once you have an owner, then you can go in the court records and trace them as property.”

Riffel thought she was onto something when she located Iberville’s 1910 census. Bayonne-Johnson’s great grandmother had said her parents were born in Maryland. And from previous research, Riffel knew one Louisiana landowner named Jesse Batey had shipped a lot of slaves into the state from Maryland. So she next searched Batey’s slave inventory, where she found Bayonne-Johnson’s ancestors.

Unwinding the sale history, she came upon the initial transaction. The document said: “In the city of Washington, on 10 November, 1839 [sic], Thomas Mulledy of Georgetown, District of Columbia sold to Jesse Batey … 64 Negroes.”

Thinking little of it, Riffel shipped her findings to Bayonne-Johnson, who passed them on to Estes-Hicks, who one day in 2004 found herself wondering who this Mulledy fellow was. She plugged his name into Google. The results revealed that Mulledy had been the leader of Maryland’s Jesuit priests. It also showed him to be the president of Georgetown University. Her family, she discovered, had been among the 272 slaves Mulledy had sold.

She remembers sitting in her Manhattan study, stunned. She loved the Catholic Church. She had never expected it to be complicit in her family’s bondage. The Church “really helped fight segregation in the South, and we always thought they were part of the freedom movement. Never —” she said, trailing off. “It was tense. And it still is for me.”

She and Bayonne-Johnson put together a list of materials for the upcoming reunion, which began with Mass at Saint Monica Catholic Church in New Orleans. People wept when they learned the truth, Estes-Hicks recalled.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, shuttering Saint Monica. Estes-Hicks, consumed with what the storm had done to her childhood home and church, abandoned the search into her family’s past.

But Bayonne-Johnson didn’t.

‘She totally punctured the balloon’

Last November, a Boston entrepreneur named Richard Cellini learned of a drama gripping Georgetown, his alma mater. Students were demonstrating to demand the renaming of Mulledy Hall.

Cellini dispatched a note to a Georgetown professor. He asked what had happened to the descendants of the slaves. The official told him, according to their correspondence, that “all of them quickly succumbed to fever in the malodorous swamp world of Louisiana.”

Still curious, Cellini decided to research what happened for himself and soon landed on a small website Bayonne-Johnson maintained. Her findings, also published in a genealogical journal in 2008, traced her family from a St. Mary’s County plantation through the Georgetown sale and into their voyage South — as well as their lives afterward. 

“My search for the name of the ship that transported my ancestors who were enslaved by the Jesuits came to an end after four years of research,” Bayonne-Johnson wrote in the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society Bulletin. It was called the Katherine Jackson of Georgetown. Those ancestors, she wrote, had survived the Civil War and went on to live long lives. “They were found on the 1870 Iberville Parish census at 75 and 80 respectively,” she wrote. Many of their “children remained in the area.”

Cellini sent Bayonne-Johnson an e-mail. Could she talk right away?

“She totally punctured the balloon,” Cellini said. “If she hadn’t done the research and published her little blog there would have been no easy way for us to find” what had happened to the descendants. Days later, Cellini launched the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project, hired the genealogist who had first helped Bayonne-Johnson and started searching for other descendants.

So far, his organization has located more than 2,000 and had direct contact with between 50 and 60 of them, Cellini said. “It’s a slow and painstaking process,” he added. His hope is that Georgetown will welcome all of them into the community and grant them the same “legacy status” afforded children of Georgetown donors.

While it’s unclear whether the university will do that, it has taken steps to reconnect with the descendants.

On Monday, at Bayonne-Johnson’s meeting with the university’s president, she said she finally had the chance to tell her family’s story in person. It was all she said she ever wanted. “Censuses and charts and family trees are boring,” she said. “But stories — I wanted to tell the story of my family. I just want to be a part of its history. And it’s there. It’s hidden. It’s not told. It’s wherever they put it. I just want to get my story out there.”