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Georgetown president, descendant of college’s sold slaves meet in Spokane

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, the descendant of a slave family sold by Georgetown University in the 1830s to settle debts speaks with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia on Monday, June 13, 2016, at Spokane Public Library in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, the descendant of a slave family sold by Georgetown University in the 1830s to settle debts speaks with Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia on Monday, June 13, 2016, at Spokane Public Library in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

After Georgetown University maintained for years there were no surviving descendants of slaves the school sold in 1838, its current president sat down with one for the first time Monday in Spokane.

“I wanted to show him my family, that they are real people,” said Patricia Bayonne-Johnson after a private meeting with John J. DeGioia, Georgetown’s president.

Bayonne-Johnson has known for more than a decade that her great-great-great grandfather, Nace Butler, was one of 272 Maryland slaves sold to a Louisiana plantation by the Jesuits at Georgetown. The Rev. Thomas Mulledy, once president of Georgetown, made the deal with slave owners to pay off debts incurred by the school. In her meeting with DeGioia, she showed him pictures of her family, including her grandfather.

DeGioia and the university has been publicly grappling with that fact for nearly a year, including stripping a residence hall of Mulledy’s name. The university president, who convened a working group of students and educators in the fall tasked with determining how the school will acknowledge its history of slavery, said his meeting with Bayonne-Johnson and members of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society was focused on partnering to ensure public access to records that could help identify other descendants.

“It’s a very moving experience to be here, and to be received so warmly, and to identify a common project which we, moving forward, will be able to work together on,” DeGioia said.

Bayonne-Johnson, president of the genealogical society, enlisted the help of her colleagues after alumnus Richard Cellini approached her last year to aid in finding other descendants of the school’s slaves. The half-dozen women who have spearheaded the project also met privately with DeGioia on Monday and said they were impressed with his willingness to shine light on Georgetown’s difficult history.

“I felt he was very eager to provide help,” said Dolly Webb, one of the society’s members.

“They were looking for suggestions as to how to make it better, or easier,” said Patricia Ayers, another member.

Barbara Brazington, a genealogical society member, said Georgetown had an opportunity to be “the centerpoint” in providing information needed for descendants to discover their family history.

“They’re very prominent with it now,” Brazington said. “They’re a big university; they have the resources.”

One of the lingering questions for the Eastern Washington genealogists was why the university removed some documents that had been posted online as part of the Jesuit Plantation Project, an undertaking of Georgetown’s American Studies department. DeGioia said the documents, which included the diary of a priest who visited the plantation where Nace Butler and others lived before their sale, were removed so the school’s website could be updated.

“It was one of the earliest digital humanities projects. We put it online in the mid-90s,” DeGioia said. “We had it taken down in 2015 because the technology was obsolete.”

The records are being restored online as part of the university’s workgroup. They can be viewed on the website of Adam Rothman, an associate professor of history at Georgetown.

Bayonne-Johnson said she hoped the meeting would forge a partnership between her group and the school, as the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society continues to seek other descendants of the Butler family and other slaves sold by the Jesuits at Georgetown.

“I think that, as family, we will find a way to honor the sacrifices and the legacy of these people,” Bayonne-Johnson said.


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