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GU272 descendants and others participate in Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria to retrace ancestors’ steps

Julie Hawkins Ennis at right led the Spiritual Walk for GU272 descendants and other participants on June 20, 2024 from the Freedom House Museum in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, to the waterfront, near where the Katherine Jackson ship would have been docked. That ship transported some of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838, a sale that helped ensure the financial survival of Georgetown College, now known as Georgetown University. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Hawkins, Pike, Mahoney, and Mason are just a few of the last names shared by hundreds of descendants of those enslaved by Jesuit priests in Maryland during colonial times and in the early decades of the United States. On June 19, 1838, the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus signed a contract to sell 272 enslaved men, women and children, now often referred to as the GU272.

Julie Hawkins Ennis, the founder of Southern Maryland Voices LLC and organizer of the walk, spoke to a couple dozen descendants and other participants outside the Freedom House Museum on Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia, on the morning of June 20, the day after the commemoration of the Juneteenth Freedom Day anniversary. Ironically, June 19 was the day the Jesuits signed the bill of sale in 1838, and also the day in 1865 now known as Juneteenth when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom, more than two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

“That was the date the Jesuits signed a contract with sugarcane plantation owners... They signed a contract to sell 272-plus people from Southern Maryland down to the sugarcane plantations, which was literally hell,” Hawkins Ennis said. “Why did this happen? Georgetown was going under economically, getting ready to close, and they needed money.”

Her son was a student at the Jesuit preparatory school, Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., when she found out she was a descendant of the Jesuit-owned enslaved people in 2019.

“I almost pulled him out. But I didn’t, and I came back around because of how I grew up. Being Catholic was not just a religion; it was our way of life,” Hawkins Ennis said. “Although this happened, there were some good things that came out of being Catholic…I'm still Catholic, so today I decided that we should walk in their footsteps and see where they were held.”

Some people enslaved by the Jesuits at their plantations were part of the infamous 1838 sale, and other enslaved family members remained in Maryland. Descendants of the Louisiana ancestors and Maryland ancestors held a reunion last year in Southern Maryland.

Before beginning the tour of the Freedom House Museum and the Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, Julie Hawkins Ennis at center gave opening remarks to attendees, who included descendants of the GU272 and descendants of enslaved family members who had remained in Maryland. She spoke about the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838 and about the history of the museum building, which was once used as a pen for enslaved people. Hawkins Ennis also told how she has had to grapple with this history and her Catholic faith. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
Before beginning the tour of the Freedom House Museum and the Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, Julie Hawkins Ennis at center gave opening remarks to attendees, who included descendants of the GU272 and descendants of enslaved family members who had remained in Maryland. She spoke about the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838 and about the history of the museum building, which was once used as a pen for enslaved people. Hawkins Ennis also told how she has had to grapple with this history and her Catholic faith. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

The Freedom House in Old Town Alexandria now serves as a museum among the rowhouses. However, it was once a building used for trafficking men, women, and children from 1828 until 1851 into the “largest, most profitable slave trading business in the United States,” according to Karen Wilkins, a museum educator.

Wilkins, who guided the group through the museum prior to the pilgrimage, told descendants about Isaac Franklin, John Armfield and Rice Ballard, who were all significant partners in the domestic trade of enslaved people in the United States. She discussed how the southern plantations in the United States harvested sugarcane, cotton, rice and indigo crops. At one point, the South was dubbed “King Cotton,” as it “provided about two-thirds of the world’s cotton, not just the United States,” she said.

Karen Wilkins, who works at the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, gave a private tour to those attending the June 20 Spiritual Walk, who included descendants of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. In this photograph, she is reading from a reproduction of the Katherine Jackson manifest, which transported enslaved people from Virginia to Louisiana. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
Karen Wilkins, who works at the Freedom House Museum in Alexandria, gave a private tour to those attending the June 20 Spiritual Walk, who included descendants of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. In this photograph, she is reading from a reproduction of the Katherine Jackson manifest, which transported enslaved people from Virginia to Louisiana. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Wilkins went on to explain the function of the Freedom House and how the enslaved were kept in “open-air pens” on both sides of the building. She said the city recently approved restorations to the building to what she called a “period of significance” to revert the building to better represent its functionality during the 1800s, including closing off windows that did not exist.

After a brief walk through the museum, the group went back outside to begin their spiritual walk, which was a little over a mile from the Freedom House to the waterfront. This would have been the walk their ancestors took before boarding the Katherine Jackson ship. A reproduction of the ship’s manifest can be found in the Freedom House.

Mélisande Colomb gave a water libation at the end of the Spiritual Walk for GU272 descendants in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, 2024 to honor their ancestors who had been enslaved and sold by the Maryland Jesuits and acknowledge the suffering they endured. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
Mélisande Colomb gave a water libation at the end of the Spiritual Walk for GU272 descendants in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, 2024 to honor their ancestors who had been enslaved and sold by the Maryland Jesuits and acknowledge the suffering they endured. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

By the water, Mélisande Colomb, who works as the research and community engagement associate at Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, gave a water libation.

Following the libation, the names from the manifest were read out loud.

During a Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, the names of the enslaved men, women and children who were trafficked on the Katherine Jackson ship in 1838 following a sale by the Maryland Society of Jesus were read aloud during the water libation by different descendants. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
During a Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, the names of the enslaved men, women and children who were trafficked on the Katherine Jackson ship in 1838 following a sale by the Maryland Society of Jesus were read aloud during the water libation by different descendants. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

“Pouring libation is an acknowledgment of ancestral connection. You can pour libations with clean water or with alcohol; we just choose water. Water is what connects all of this. When Franklin and Armfield were operating as a business and when human trafficking was an American scheme, they traveled by water. Everything was by water,” Colomb told the Catholic Standard. She said the GU272 descendant names her family is connected to include Queen and Mahoney, although she suspects there are more.

Moving forward, Colomb said there needs to be an improvement in education surrounding this history.

“I’d like to see Americans better educated about America and who we are as America. We tend to, in our largess, we have assigned ourselves as people who will go out into the world and correct wrongs in our world while we neglect and ignore issues here in America,” Colomb said.

Participants in the June 20 Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria including GU272 descendants join hands in prayer to honor the memory of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838. After the sale, some of those ancestors were taken to the Alexandria waterfront and transported to Louisiana, where they endured grueling work in sugarcane fields at plantations there. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
Participants in the June 20 Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria including GU272 descendants join hands in prayer to honor the memory of the 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838. After the sale, some of those ancestors were taken to the Alexandria waterfront and transported to Louisiana, where they endured grueling work in sugarcane fields at plantations there. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Julie Hawkins Ennis told the Standard that this was her second time doing the walk, the first time she walked from the Freedom House to the docks was with Gonzaga students and their social studies teacher, Edward Donnellan.

“They (our ancestors) made these same footsteps we made down here to this dock, right here, can you imagine? It’s sad,” Hawkins Ennis said. Although she grew up in Southern Maryland and has lived around Maryland and D.C., she reflected on how much history she has learned in recent years about popular sites.

Julie Hawkins Ennis, who teaches local history through her group Southern Maryland Voices LLC, organized the Spiritual Walk for descendants in memory of the GU272 ancestors, the enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. That sale helped ensure the economic survival of Georgetown College. “A lot of us know this story, and a lot of people need to know it,” Hawkins Ennis said. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
Julie Hawkins Ennis, who teaches local history through her group Southern Maryland Voices LLC, organized the Spiritual Walk for descendants in memory of the GU272 ancestors, the enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838. That sale helped ensure the economic survival of Georgetown College. “A lot of us know this story, and a lot of people need to know it,” Hawkins Ennis said. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

“We’ve come here to go eat; I used to work not far from here. I drove up and down Duke Street almost daily. I had no idea this was where enslaved persons walked. I didn’t even know this was a slaving dock. We didn’t know,” Hawkins Ennis said. “It’s amazing to me that we are pretty much standing on hallowed ground. It’s funny; it seems wherever I go in this area, the DMV, there’s some connection. It’s the strangest thing. It’s almost like the ancestors sent me to these places to discover.”

GU272 descendants and other participants pose together after taking part in a Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, 2024 that retraced the steps of ancestors who had been among 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)
GU272 descendants and other participants pose together after taking part in a Spiritual Walk in Old Town Alexandria on June 20, 2024 that retraced the steps of ancestors who had been among 272 enslaved men, women and children sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)


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