During the Jan. 24 Mass of Remembrance, a student from the Banneker Blake Academy in Baltimore helped read the names of 272 enslaved people sold by Maryland’s Jesuits in 1838.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN During the Jan. 24 Mass of Remembrance, a student from the Banneker Blake Academy in Baltimore helped read the names of 272 enslaved people sold by Maryland’s Jesuits in 1838.
The name of their ancestor, Isaac Hawkins, was first on the infamous 1838 bill of sale, when members of the Maryland Society of Jesus sold 272 enslaved men, women and children to support the then-financially struggling Georgetown University.

On Jan. 24, some of his descendants gathered for a Mass of remembrance at St. Augustine Church in Washington, the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital that was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some who had been emancipated from slavery.

“You’ve come home,” said Father Raymond Kemp, the main celebrant at the Mass and a former pastor there who now serves as a special assistant to the president of Georgetown University and teaches in its theology department.

Before giving his homily, he stepped from the altar to embrace descendants of Isaac Hawkins seated in the front pew of the historic church.

Earlier, one of Hawkins’ descendants, Lisa Williams, began reading a list of each of the names of the 272 enslaved people sold by the Jesuits 180 years ago, beginning with “Isaac, a man about 65 years of age…”

The names included Hawkins’ second son, Patrick, 35, and Letty, his 30-year-old wife; along with Susan, a 10-year-old daughter, and Gabriel, an 8-year-old son. Adding to the poignancy and sorrow of a list that was almost unbearable to hear, the names were read by young students from Banneker Blake Academy in Baltimore, an all-boys public charter school who recited the names and ages of people who mirrored their own ages, and that of their parents and grandparents.

Later, Father Patrick Smith, the pastor of St. Augustine, put the reading of the names in perspective, saying those people should not be thought of as slaves, but as “mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and children.”

Bearing witness to their human dignity, he said, “reminds us of who they are, and who we are.”

After the names were read, Father Smith offered a prayer of remembrance to God, saying, “You who know us all by name, hear the names of the people we remember this evening… Those black lives always mattered to you, even when they didn’t matter in the country they lived in.”

Father Kemp had opened the Mass saying, “As we remember, the sign of the cross is really appropriate.”

In his homily, he said, “Reading those names takes one’s breath away and causes tears to fall down.”

Noting that he had an ancestor who was a slaveholder in Virginia, the priest said the story of the enslaved and their descendants, needs to be told and remembered, and he noted that many African-American Catholics in Washington and Maryland have roots in the Jesuits’ Maryland plantation. The issue, he said, “touches the core of faith, a faith that seeks justice and does what is right and good.”

One week earlier, some of the Hawkins’ descendants and an attorney representing them had held a press conference in Washington, calling on Georgetown University to take more concrete steps at restorative justice for the families of the “GU272.”

Father Kemp in his homily noted that chapter in Georgetown’s history and said, “This is our situation. To rectify it and make it right means coming together and working together.” Later he acknowledged “those who have kept the faith” and prayed “that we might be healers and liberators, reconcilers and forgivers.”

After the Mass, Father Smith said he hoped that such efforts would spur “a new commitment to rid ourselves and our society of the vestiges of racism and anything that demeans our brothers and sisters.”

Williams, a telecommunications manager for a wireless company in Illinois, said afterward she agreed with Father Kemp that the dialogue must continue, “to keep recognizing those who came before us, who endured such atrocities, who allowed us to be who we are today.”

Another descendant, Dee Taylor, had offered an opening statement at the Mass, saying it was important to acknowledge her ancestors and what they experienced. “I know I am connected to them. They are family,” said Taylor, a retired special education teacher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Later, her voice broke and tears ran down her face as she spoke to a reporter, saying she has had to reconcile how such a thing could have been done by representatives of her Church. “My Catholic religion taught me everything about right and wrong. They (the Maryland Jesuits in 1838) did wrong… It gets to me sometimes… I’m in a place, trying to reconcile the whys and why-nots.”