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  • Writer's pictureLaura Masur

Learning from Descendants of Jesuit Enslavement.

I spent years of graduate study poring over technical reports, geographic information systems (GIS) datasets, and archival documents relating to the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) system of plantations, located predominantly in Maryland. When it was finally time to dig, my thoughts went immediately to the community of descendants whose ancestors had been enslaved and sold by the Jesuits—often known in the media as the “GU272” for their association with Georgetown University. Would archeology provide a meaningful way for descendants to connect with the places where their ancestors had lived and labored?


Building and maintaining relationships with community members is hard work, especially for outsiders like myself. At the forefront of my mind was the importance of contributing to the community and not exploiting them for my own purposes—something I learned from Dr. Alexandra Jones. I wondered, will descendants actually want to visit sites during fieldwork? How can archeology give back to the community? How can I ensure that visiting sites is not a burden, when gas is close to $5 per gallon? Having regular conversations, listening, and being transparent with community members has played an important role in building relationships. At its core, that’s what community archeology is about: relationships.


Yes, we all love archeology. Between 2021 and 2023, our project—generously funded through a Maryland Historic Trust (MHT) Historic Preservation Non-Capital Grant—involved survey and limited excavation at three former Jesuit sites in Maryland. We identified quite a few structures, including two likely homes of enslaved persons (slave quarters) at Newtown. Across the three sites we found buttons, buckles, gun parts, slate pencils, marbles, and even some early 20th century cosmetics. Members of descendant and local church communities, and even a few Jesuits, visited or dug with us most days. They also made some of the best “finds”: Angela Wilson uncovered a partially-intact brick foundation at St. Inigoes; Guilford Queen discovered a rosary fragment at Bohemia.

 

Through our days in the field, lab, and many zoom calls, we shared meals and stories. We visited the Maryland Archeological Conservation (MAC) Lab and built a website (stillwespeak.org) together—a project funded by the Social Science Research Council. These conversations also gave rise to the current focus of ongoing fieldwork: cemetery documentation at White Marsh, another Jesuit site in Maryland. Our project brings together the Sacred Heart Catholic church and descendant communities to work towards a common goal: honoring the memory of all people interred in the cemetery.


Given the violent legacies of slavery, segregation, and racism, digging square holes and mapping gravestones seems like a small act. While we uncover new information about the past through these projects, they also enable us to grow as a community. Working with descendants of Jesuit enslavement has transformed the way I understand the sites I study. The enslaved and free persons who created the archeological record are no longer anonymous; I see their faces through their descendants, my friends.

 

To learn more about the lives of Jesuit-enslaved ancestors in Maryland through documents, maps, and artifacts visit the website: www.stillwespeak.org


Figure 1. Descendant Guildford Queen and Fr. Sean Toole, S.J. at the Craddock-Devine-Ford House 9Bohemia) in 2022 (Image courtesy of Guilford Queen).

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