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Howard University students join descendants in praying for enslaved buried at Sacred Heart cemetery

After a Feb. 25 prayer service to remember enslaved African Americans buried at the cemetery of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland, Stephanie White (at left) a member of St. Joseph Parish in Largo who believes she may have ancestors buried there, speaks with Howard University students Iman Joseph Davis and Christiana Bennett. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Catholic students from Howard University preparing for their future took time on Feb. 25 to honor their ancestors in the faith, as they joined a prayer service led by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory at the cemetery of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland, where an archaeological survey has uncovered what may be more than 500 unmarked graves of enslaved people who worked at a Jesuit plantation in that area during the 1700s and 1800s.

Joining the prayer service “just feels like a full circle moment,” said Iman Joseph Davis, a senior marketing student at Howard University from Houston who participates in the HU Bison Catholic campus ministry program.

Davis is originally from Louisiana. Many Black Catholics from that state and in Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area have shared roots, with some being descendants of the enslaved people who were baptized Catholic and worked on Jesuit plantations in colonial Maryland, or are descendants of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838 and transported to plantations in Louisiana. 

That infamous sale helped ensure the financial survival of Georgetown College, which is now Georgetown University. Georgetown has worked in recent years with descendants to acknowledge that past, to promote learning and community initiatives, and to seek reconciliation. Representatives of Georgetown University and of the Jesuits were among the people attending the prayer service led by Cardinal Gregory.

One week earlier, Iman Joseph Davis joined Howard University’s HU Bison Catholic group in volunteering to help clear the grounds of the Sacred Heart cemetery where enslaved people are believed to be buried.

“It seems like a strong disservice was shown to our ancestors, with them not having proper burials or proper recognition that they were even buried here, so me going as a Black Catholic and hearing about enslaved people possibly being buried here, I thought it was my duty to show up and to pay homage to those who came before me and those who put in the work to allow me to have the ability to get an education today,” Davis said.

He noted that the week before while he was volunteering in the clean-up there, “We had the opportunity to actually walk the grounds, be around our ancestors… We had the opportunity to actually put some work in, to pay homage to our ancestors.”

Davis said it was moving for him to participate in the prayer service, where “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song regarded as the Black national anthem, was the closing hymn, and the ceremony included traditions that their African ancestors practiced, including the pouring out of water as a libation, and descendants there said the names of their ancestors aloud.

The Howard University student said it was important to give those ancestors “the respect that they deserve. I feel it was my calling.”

That sentiment was shared by Christiana Bennett, an architecture major and history minor at Howard University who is also from Louisiana.

“Who better to honor our ancestors than us, than the very descendants,” she said. “We’re their greatest gift to the world, honestly. They were disrespected then, even in death they were disrespected. So now centuries later, we finally had the opportunity to be here freely, to be on this land as free people, and to finally do them justice.”

Bennett noted that a Jesuit priest had recorded the names of her enslaved ancestors in Louisiana, and she said it was meaningful for her to participate in the clean-up effort and prayer service at Sacred Heart cemetery. During the clean-up, she came upon rocks that may have signified the sites of graves, and she put small flags in those locations.

“I’m not going to lie, I came here with a lot of anger in my heart, at the fact that they even had to go through something so diabolical. So when I was picking up leaves and I kept uncovering some other stones that were buried, it was very emotionally taxing. When I was here, I couldn’t keep the tears from falling,” she said. “Sometimes you could almost feel despair, but it’s such a feeling of relief that you’re finally finding your ancestors and finally acknowledging (them). and you actually know where they are.”

When asked how she felt about her ancestors, Bennett said, “My ancestors are my everything, everything I do, they’re essentially a model of what I hope to be for my future descendants. Everything that they’ve left for me, and the shoulders that I stand on, I want to create as much of a strong foundation of love and of compassion and of kindness and forgiveness for my own descendants. I want them to be able to feel my love that I have for them now, centuries past (and) centuries coming.”

Father Robert Boxie III, a priest of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington who serves as the Catholic chaplain at Howard University, had joined those students at the cemetery grounds clean-up and at the cardinal’s prayer service.

“We were here last week for one of the clean-ups, and it was really impactful for us to be here, for us to be a part of the healing that this community and that our Church and that our archdiocese has to do, and we want to be a part of that,” Father Boxie said.

The priest repeated the cardinal’s words from his homily, emphasizing that none of the people buried there are lost.

“We are here to continue their legacy, their memory, we are inheritors of what they brought, so it was important for us to be here, to be a part of this shared moment of healing, of reparation, of reconciliation, of justice and doing our part to be present here,” Father Boxie said.

After a Feb. 25 prayer service to remember enslaved African Americans buried at the cemetery of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland, Stephanie White (at left) a member of St. Joseph Parish in Largo who believes she may have ancestors buried there, speaks with Howard University students Iman Joseph Davis and Christiana Bennett; Ali Mumbach, a Howard University graduate student who assists in the HU Bison Catholic campus ministry there; and Father Robert Boxie III, the Catholic chaplain at that university. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

After the prayer service, the Howard University students and chaplains engaged in a conversation with Stephanie White, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, who believes she may have ancestors buried in the unmarked graves at Sacred Heart Parish’s cemetery. Her ancestors were among the enslaved people sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. She noted that she is descended from Jackson Hawkins, who was 3 years old when he was sold and transported to Louisiana. “I’m his great-granddaughter,” she said.

White, who is retired from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and served in the Army, said she appreciated that the Archdiocese of Washington is acknowledging the history of the enslaved people believed to be buried on those cemetery grounds.

She said those ancestors, who lived very hard and difficult lives, passed down a legacy of perseverance to their generations of descendants. “We have to honor their legacy and their memory and keep on going despite adversity. They had a lot of adversity,” she said.

Asked what it meant to her to pray for those ancestors, White said, ““It was important to honor their memory, to acknowledge what they’ve done in the past.”