More than 2,300 miles, nearly two centuries and a proclamation of emancipation separate the women of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society from the family they’re piecing together.
Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, president of the organization and a descendant of Lousiana slave Nace Butler, links Spokane and the sale of men, women and children by Jesuit priests in 1838 Maryland. The local volunteers Bayonne-Johnson recruited to help fill out her lineage – who were among the 272 slaves sold in part to prop up Georgetown University – said those ancestors have begun to feel like kin.
“We’ve become a family,” said Dolly Webb, a trustee of the genealogical society and one of the volunteers available every Tuesday on the downtown Spokane Library’s third floor to help the public with their own ancestry projects.
The group’s work tracing the lineage of Nace Butler, a patriarch of one of the families taken by boat from Maryland to Louisiana, was featured in a New York Times article last month detailing their sale by the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy. Mulledy served as president of Georgetown from 1829 to 1838, and again from 1845 to 1848. He sold the slaves just a few months after his first tenure as president ended.
Bayonne-Johnson, 74, discovered her own ties to the sale shortly before moving to Spokane in 2004.
“I’ve known for 12 years that my ancestors were enslaved by the Jesuits,” said Bayonne-Johnson, who was raised in the Catholic church. “I have lived with this.”
The retired biology teacher, who lived in Oakland, California, published the story detailing her search in a quarterly African-American genealogy journal in 2008. She was conducting research in advance of a family reunion in 2004 when professional genealogist Judy Riffel, who is based in Louisiana, provided Bayonne-Johnson with a bill of sale bearing Mulledy’s name.
This eventually led Bayonne-Johnson to records indicating her maternal great-grandmother, Rachel Scott Hicks, was sold to a plantation outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1853 along with her grandfather, Nace Butler. Riffel published the story of the search with Bayonne-Johnson.
When she retired, Bayonne-Johnson moved to Spokane, where her husband grew up.
Her work caught the attention of Richard J. Cellini, a Georgetown alumnus who has set up a nonprofit called the Georgetown Memory Project that is trying to locate the descendants of the college’s sold slaves.
Bayonne-Johnson, who described herself as part of a big Louisiana Roman Catholic family, said the realization her ancestors were enslaved and sold by the church was shocking. But her personal relationship with the church has always been strained by race, she said.
“It was already pretty difficult for me,” Bayonne-Johnson said. Growing up in New Orleans, Bayonne-Johnson attended a Catholic school called St. Veronica, where most of her family graduated, and her grandfather – a carpenter – built altars.
When she was in fifth grade, the family was evicted from their home so a school could be built, Bayonne-Johnson said. She began attending a mostly white church in her new home in Metairie, Louisiana, about 4 miles away.
“Because this was in an era of segregation, and Jim Crow, we had to sit in the back,” Bayonne-Johnson said. “We went from sitting wherever we wanted, to sitting in the back.”
She still attends church every so often, and her family remains relatively devout, she said.
“Initially, we were shocked. It really tested our faith,” she said of her discovery of her ancestors. “But I can’t think of anybody who left Catholicism because of it.”
Webb and Patricia Ayers, another genealogical society member helping to trace the Butler lineage, said it was distressing to look at ledgers listing prices for Bayonne-Johnson’s ancestors. Mary Butler, the mother of Bayonne-Johnson’s great-grandmother Rachel Scott Hicks, was valued at $700 in March 1851, when their owner, Jesse Batey, died and his heirs began selling off slaves.
“I get so angry,” Webb said. “I get really upset.”
Ayers was tasked with tracing Basil Butler, one of Mary Butler’s brothers. When she talks about him, Ayers – who’s been trying to trace her own lineage for nearly four decades – uses the possessive “my Basil.”
“It’s obvious they flourished,” Ayers said of the family. Basil Butler served as a constable in Iberville Parish in Louisana, and several of his descendants served in the military during World War II and after, Ayers learned through her research.
Much of the work tracing the Butler line through the generations is based on primary source documents that were once available as part of the Jesuit Plantation Project, a service of Georgetown University’s American Studies department. Records from the six plantations owned by the Jesuits in Maryland were preserved there, but the documents have since been removed from online viewing, Bayonne-Johnson said.
She keeps the records in a three-ring binder and made copies for her fellow members. In addition to other primary documents secured by Riffel in Louisiana, the documents provide a starting point to use additional online databases, some of which carry a subscription fee, to trace descendants.
One of the primary documents once hosted online was a diary from a Jesuit priest who spent time with slaves on one of the plantations in the 1830s. Bayonne-Johnson said that priest seemed unconcerned about the slave labor.
“He talked more about his dog, named Rockwood,” Bayonne-Johnson said. “There are pages and pages about his dog.”
Several entries are devoted to the “exploits” of Rockwood, described as a “half cur, half greyhound” in the diary. There’s a long entry about Rockwood eating butter off the breakfast table, but few mentions of the slaves who lived on the plantation.
The team has turned up Butler descendants living across the country, many of them still in Louisiana, Ayers said. But, given the sensitive nature of the information they have to share, Bayonne-Johnson said they’ve yet to reach out to those family members with their findings.
“We haven’t worked that out, how we’re going to approach the living people,” she said.
Though records show the Jesuits profited from the sale of the slaves, and Georgetown continued to grow, members of the church’s hierarchy were split on the morality of the issue. A few months after the sale of the Maryland slaves, Pope Gregory XVI issued an order denouncing slavery as an institution in December 1839. But the church would not come out fully against slavery until Brazil outlawed the practice nearly 50 years later, and a full two decades after the American Civil War.
Georgetown University continues to grapple with its history tied to slavery. In November, the school’s administration renamed two buildings, including a residence hall named after Mulledy, because of the troubled history.
Meanwhile, the members of the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society continue to plug away at filling out the family tree. Bayonne-Johnson said it’s important the history of the slaves is not forgotten.
“We’re not done, you know,” she said. “There’s no end.”