Episode 767: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part Two : Planet Money In 1838, the Maryland Jesuits sold 272 people, slaves, to pay the debts of Georgetown University. We talk with the descendants about what - if anything - they're owed.
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Episode 767: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part Two

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Episode 767: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part Two

Episode 767: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part Two

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Mr. Poole, can I ask you a question? I've been bothering your daughter. What do you think about all this Georgetown stuff?

BURNEAL POOLE: Oh, go for it. You see, you got a whole lot of people want to do the right thing. And then you got another whole lot - they want money off the DNA.

KING: You don't want money?

POOLE: Mm-mm, no.

KING: Why not?

POOLE: I got money (laughter).

DEBRA TILSON: We were just talking about that, Dad.

POOLE: Yeah.

TILSON: That's what I was just telling her - I say, it ain't about money with us.

POOLE: I don't never care about no money.

KING: But not everyone agrees with Burneal Poole. His town and his family are divided. On last week's show, we went to the town of Maringouin, La. About a year ago, many residents of Maringouin learned that they're the descendants of 272 people, slaves, who were sold in 1838 to pay a debt. The debt was owed by Georgetown University, the Jesuit college in Washington, D.C. The sale of the 272 slaves saved Georgetown.

And when all this came out, it raised a big question - what does Georgetown owe the descendants? Now, an easy answer is the past is the past: Georgetown doesn't owe them anything. But consider this - Georgetown itself believes it owes a debt. Here's Georgetown President John DeGioia speaking last fall. He's quoting a working group that Georgetown set up to examine its links to slavery.


JOHN DEGIOIA: The working group writes, quote, "we have also returned frequently to the question of reparations. While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slave holding and the sale of enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the university."

KING: Reparations. Georgetown will study the question, what do we owe? Now, that's Georgetown in Washington, D.C. I went down to Maringouin to talk to descendants. My very first stop was what you heard at the beginning of the show, the driveway of Burneal Poole's little brick house. I was surprised by how certain he was that he doesn't want anything.

Well, why not? Money's important, right? And your ancestors - not even ancestors - your - it would have been your great-grandfather...

POOLE: I know, mm-hm, yeah.

KING: ...Was enslaved and was sold.

POOLE: Yeah.

KING: How come you don't want them to pay?

POOLE: And then I get money off of that and every time I spend a dollar, I'm going to say, I'm spending my dead people money.

TILSON: That's right.

POOLE: And I don't - mm-mm.


KING: I'm Noel King. And today on PLANET MONEY, we're going to talk to descendants about what they think they're owed, about what they'd accept. And we're going to talk to people who've spent their careers trying to figure out what a meaningful financial commitment might look like in the face of a moral debt that cannot be repaid. We're going to talk about reparations.


KING: My guide down in Maringouin was a woman named Debra Tilson. She's Mr. Poole's daughter.


KING: Hello. It's nice to meet you.

TILSON: It is a pleasure to meet you too, Miss Noel. I am excited.

KING: We met outside her office in Baton Rouge, and we drove the 30 miles west to Maringouin.

TILSON: I'm the same way (laughter).

KING: Debra's in her mid-50s. She's short. She's wearing a bracelet that says faith and these punky little earrings with skulls on them. Debra and I had talked on the phone before I came down, so I knew a couple things. First, people in this little town don't all agree on what, if anything, Georgetown owes them. Second, they've been getting a lot of attention from outsiders. And third, Debra is trying to have a sense of humor about all this.

TILSON: Let me tell you - all I've known was we were a slave. Now I got somebody telling me now I got to start using the term enslaved. Well, slave, enslaved - didn't make the work no easier. Just like a whipping or a whooping - it don't make a difference. It still hurts. OK?

KING: Debra is the kind of person who likes making fun of a certain kind of political correctness. She wanted to take me to Maringouin's monthly town hall meeting so people would know why I was hanging around. We were a little late getting in, so we stood in the back room.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Drainage and overall...

KING: And the meeting was typical - water, sewerage, overgrown grass. The chief of police is irritated that people call him at home instead of calling the station when they have a problem. And then the mayor brings up that Maringouin could really use an adult literacy center.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

KING: And Debra starts typing something on her phone. And she pulls me in, and she shows it to me. She wrote, maybe that's something that Georgetown could pay for. This is a perfect illustration of how weird this whole thing is. A year ago, there was no talk of Georgetown University paying for things in little Maringouin, La. People weren't hiring lawyers or discussing payment. They are now. Debra says she doesn't want anything for herself, but she does want Georgetown to invest in Maringouin, even though she knows there are no guarantees.

TILSON: All they can do is ask. And all they can do is say either yes or no. If you noticed in that town hall meeting, the mayor and everybody around that council - they all know about with Georgetown. They know about the money. That - I mean, they know - they - look, the town council could easily write up a resolution or a proposal and submit it because most of those people that were sitting on there are descendants.

KING: At this point, genealogists have identified more than 4,000 descendants. Some of them still live in Maringouin. Some have left. Many have never met. Debra told me that she has family, close family, who disagree with her. They think she's letting Georgetown off the hook. So I asked her who. And she said, I have a cousin out in Nashville. And she gave me a phone number.

Hi, there. Can you hear me?

KATHLEEN PAYNE WILKS: Yes, we can hear you.

KING: That is Kathleen Payne Wilks, Debra's first cousin. She was expecting my call, but she asked me if I would talk to her mom first. Her mom grew up in Maringouin, so I said sure.

KING: Miss Theresa, would you just say your name for me, please?

THERESA A. POOLE PAYNE: My name is Theresa A. Poole Payne.

KING: Theresa A. Poole Payne is 84 years old.

Miss Theresa, can you tell me a little bit about what life was like in Maringouin when you were a little girl?

POOLE PAYNE: That's the $64,000 question. When I was young in Maringouin, all I can remember is we worked. I picked cotton when I was young girl. I cut sugar cane for a few dollars because that's all they paid us. My parents were poor, yeah, very poor. My dad never went to school.

KING: I asked her about Georgetown. And at first she says, they don't owe me anything because I got out of Maringouin.

POOLE PAYNE: I left. I was not going to stay here. I don't care if the Kennedys would have lived there.

KING: But then, again, she starts thinking back to those cotton fields.

POOLE PAYNE: I can tell you one thing. Even now, I look at my legs - I have scratches and marks on my leg. I could get my daughter to look at my legs right now and tell you what kind of marks I had on my legs. And I know that it was from working in the fields. So Kathy, would you look at my legs? Go on. Is it all right? Now raise the pants up.

PAYNE WILKS: Well, I didn't know you were doing this, so you have on some tighter pants. But, yeah.

POOLE PAYNE: Can you see those marks?

PAYNE WILKS: Yeah, I see.

POOLE PAYNE: And that was from working in the fields.

KING: And then she says, maybe they do owe me something.

POOLE PAYNE: They owe me what they didn't pay me and what they didn't pay my parents. My daddy should not have had to work as hard as he did to send his children to school, you know.

KING: And after that, Theresa got tired, and her daughter Kathleen got on the phone. Kathleen moved back to Nashville recently to look after her mom. But before that, she was a life insurance agent. She worked for New York Life, which - I don't know - maybe that's why Kathleen is not that shy about talking about money.

PAYNE WILKS: My mother picked cotton. OK?

KING: How much is your mother owed?

PAYNE WILKS: For my mother, I would say give her a million dollars.

KING: A million dollars?

PAYNE WILKS: Give her a million dollars.

KING: Why a million? Why a million?

PAYNE WILKS: You know, it's just an easy number to deal with, a million dollars. By the time any type of taxes, if anything like that comes out, it'll probably be 500,000.

KING: OK. To be fair to Kathleen, she is pulling numbers out of thin air. It's not every day that a strange woman calls your home, asks you questions, then demands that you do the math on what you're owed for slavery. Kathleen actually did this kind of math for a living. But it's different when you're talking about your own family. She has a daughter, Inaya, who's a college student.

PAYNE WILKS: I would say - I would say for Naya, you could maybe bet on 10 - $11 million. You could maybe bet on that.

KING: Where'd you get that number from? Why 10 or 11 million? That's a lot of money.

PAYNE WILKS: I know. It's a lot of money, and, you know, our ancestors kept Georgetown from being bankrupt. Like, Georgetown would cease to have existed if it weren't for those 272 people. If - you could kind of think of it as generational interest. Think of it that way.

KING: Generational interest. Actually, people who do the math on this see it in very similar terms. While I was working on this story, lots of people told me I needed to talk to a guy named Richard America.

RICHARD AMERICA JR.: Richard America Jr.

KING: Richard America Jr. is a retired professor who taught economic development at Georgetown's business school. But people didn't send me his way because of Georgetown. Richard America is kind of a legend. In 1990, he edited a book called "The Wealth Of Races." People I talked to kept citing this book.

It's a collection of essays where a bunch of economists and thinkers look at how to calculate the debts of slavery for the whole country and how to pay that national debt. The interesting thing about Richard is that, unlike everyone else I spoke to, he does not get emotional talking about reparations.

AMERICA JR.: It's not an emotional issue for me. It's a technical issue. It's about how we manage the economy.

KING: But you're a black man in America. Why isn't it emotional for you? And you teach at an institution that...

AMERICA JR.: No, it's not about that. And that's one reason why the discussion has been kind of off, in my opinion, for the last 50 years.

KING: What do you mean?

AMERICA JR.: It's not - it's an accounting problem. It's a technocratic problem. It's not about feelings one way or the other. It's show me the money. That's all.

KING: I read Richard's book - or at least I skimmed it. It's a very technical work. It's an economic text. It's full of charts and graphs and equations. It's about data not emotions. Richard didn't especially want to talk about the GU272. He said their descendants are a relatively small group, and this is a national issue affecting millions of people.

AMERICA JR.: This was part of a system. This is not some isolated incident. This is about 400 years. This is not just about slavery. This is about the Jim Crow period from the end of the Civil War up to 1965, roughly a hundred years, and the period since then up to this moment.

KING: He's talking about a moment that includes wage discrimination, housing discrimination, vast differences in school funding. This is not 1838. This is 2017. But I was still really interested in 1838 and in those 272 people and in their descendants. So I went to someone else, to Thomas Craemer, a professor in the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut. Thomas has spent some years trying to calculate reparations for slavery. He's lived in the U.S. for 17 years, but he's from a place that had to deal with its own great evil and paid its own reparations.

THOMAS CRAEMER: Based on my German heritage and our own experience with reparations, I just got naturally interested in the topic.

KING: A few years after the end of World War II, the German government paid around $820 million in reparations to Israel. And at the time, some of the fiercest opposition to those reparations came from inside Israel and from Jews.

CRAEMER: They felt it was cheapening the memory of their loved ones.

KING: It's very interesting. I saw a similar dynamic among many of the people in rural Louisiana who I spoke to where they said to me, you can't put a price on my ancestor's life...

CRAEMER: Absolutely right.

KING: ...And so I don't want anything. He says, if you are going to put a number on this stuff, you have to acknowledge that numbers are cold. They are not human. They cannot replace a life or dignity. They don't make up for suffering. So in this case, he thinks of numbers not as lives but as labor. Slavery was labor that was stolen from people.

So he showed me quickly how he'd do the math. And it is uncomfortable, and it feels inhumane. And here is how you do it. The average age of the Georgetown slaves when they were sold in 1838 was 24. Thomas got that from the bill of sale. That means they were, on average, born in 1814. You assume they worked 24 hours a day. That is the definition of enslavement. You don't pick your hours.

CRAEMER: And according to my records here, in 1814, the hourly average wage was five cents.

KING: So he multiplies - five cents times 24 hours a day times 365 days a year.

CRAEMER: For that year, 1814, I get $121,304.28

KING: This group of 272 people would have earned about $120,000 that year...


KING: ...If they'd been paid for their labor.


KING: OK. Where do we go from there?

CRAEMER: And then I repeat this for 1815, 1816, 1817, 1819 and so on until 1838.

KING: 1838 - when these men, women and children were sold.

CRAEMER: And each time, I'm compounding what was not paid. So that's always the previous years' amount plus the current year's amount. And by 1838, I'm at - let me read this - $3,923,383.72

KING: Three million, nine-hundred-twenty-three thousand, three hundred and eighty-three dollars and seventy-two cents - that is the amount of labor - that is the amount of money this group of 272 would have earned between 1814 when, on average, they were born, and 1838, when they were sold.

CRAEMER: Exactly.

KING: Four million dollars, in 1838 dollars, that these people weren't paid. And that's just for the years that they worked for the Maryland Jesuits and for Georgetown. And Thomas has baked in a 1.8 percent interest rate to reflect the rate of inflation over this country's history.

CRAEMER: And then from there, I'm basically just compounding it up at the same interest rate all the way to 2017.

KING: For this entire group of 272?

CRAEMER: For this entire group...

KING: So let me say something - we're sitting there, and Thomas is fiddling around with boxes on his Excel spreadsheet. And it's an awful feeling. But we set out to find a number, and he has come up with a number.

CRAEMER: And let me make sure I'm reading this correctly - $99,034,013.40

KING: OK, $99,034,013.40...

CRAEMER: Correct.

KING: ...Is the amount that these 272 people would have earned if they had been paid for their labor.



CRAEMER: If it was paid today, yeah.

KING: If it was paid today. Does $99,000,000 just about - does that strike you as fair?

CRAEMER: Well, let's calculated to the individual descendant. Now I'm dividing that amount by 3,800 individuals that have so far been identified. And I arrive at $26,061.58 per descendant, yeah.

KING: But then he changes the interest rate, just slightly, to 3 percent.

CRAEMER: Let's see. Now I get an estimated debt in 2017 that is $914,051,344.49.

KING: Nine hundred - did we go from...


KING: Wow. We just went from...

CRAEMER: Isn't that amazing...

KING: ...Ninety-nine million...

CRAEMER: ...From a small percentage change.

KING: ...To 914 million. What was...

Of course, this is all theoretical math. And you could say - and some of you will - that it's wrong to do this kind of math, that doing this kind of cold calculation on people's lives was what got us in trouble in the first place. But Thomas says consider what these numbers mean.

That's a billion dollars in today's money not paid to these 272 people, a billion dollars not passed down through their families over time, a billion dollars of inheritance that was never inherited - that couldn't go to pay for homes or for school fees or for doctors visits. If you were to take that billion and divide it among the descendants, it would be about $250,000 apiece. But more descendants are being identified all the time.

As a country, we've been talking about reparations for slavery since the end of slavery. Carlton Waterhouse is a professor at Indiana University law school. He is also a lawyer. He's working with a team of six other lawyers to represent some of the descendants of the 272. They're working pro bono, and he specializes in reparations.

CARLTON WATERHOUSE: My work on reparations relates mostly to scholarship. I wrote my dissertation about it for my Ph.D. degree. And then I've also written a number of articles about it as well.

KING: He says his clients aren't making money a priority. They're interested in things like memorials to their ancestors and museum exhibits in their honor. As a legal case, reparations for slavery are really hard. If you want to sue, you have to have standing. You have to prove you've been harmed. And the people we're talking about have been dead for a very long time. But Carlton told me a story about how we dealt with reparations in the past.

WATERHOUSE: I mean, this is going to sound a little strange, but you have to go with me. After slavery ended...

KING: After slavery ended, there were plenty of people alive who'd been enslaved. In the 1890s, there was a woman in Nashville, a very determined freed slave named Callie House.

WATERHOUSE: OK. So Callie House begins to organize for a slave pension fund, which is basically to provide a pension for all the people who were enslaved and worked and now, you know, are living their lives in a post-slavery world.

KING: People still alive after slavery?

WATERHOUSE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This was right after slavery.

KING: Callie House barnstorms across the South, visiting black churches and lodges, drumming up support. She formed the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. And within a couple of years, she has hundreds of thousands of members.

And Callie House's movement had some unexpected supporters. The idea of slave pensions came from a white legislator in Nebraska because the South's economy was in ruins. No one had any money. And he figured, you give freed slaves pensions, you helped the whole Southern economy. Callie stayed in touch with her members through mail, through the U.S. Postal Service. And the way this all ended - not in pensions.

WATERHOUSE: She was arrested for engaging in mail fraud for suggesting that they could, in any way - that could in any way ever possibly happen.

KING: How did they get her on mail fraud?

WATERHOUSE: Because she sent out basically a flyer to people saying, come with us to campaign to help, you know, get this slave pension fund.

KING: Here's what happened. Her association charged a small dues fee to support their push for pensions. The Postal Service said those pensions are never going to happen. And by promising people they will and collecting dues, you're defrauding them. She spent a year in prison. It is as though, as a country, we've always treated reparations like a fairy tale - but a dangerous one. Some descendants told me they don't even like to use the word. I had more than one conversation where someone started to say re- (ph) but then stopped. But that doesn't mean they're not thinking about it.

JOE STEWART: Hi. I'm Joe Stewart. I live in Battle Creek, Mich.

KING: How old are you, Joe?

STEWART: I'm 74.

KING: And where are you from?

STEWART: I'm from Maringouin, La.

KING: You might remember Joe from our last episode. He's the gentleman who got up and stood beside Georgetown's president at this big, formal meeting and told him the descendants don't feel listened to.


STEWART: Nobody has heard - you've got to hear from us. If reconciliation is going to take place as it has to, it needs to start at home. And you don't start reconciling by alienating.

KING: Joe has got an idea. It has nothing to do with individual payouts to descendants.

STEWART: A foundation, a foundation that has the potential to sustain for generations to come.

KING: What would a foundation look like?

STEWART: A foundation would be based on a trust fund, the billion dollars being the initial trust fund.

KING: Whoa, wait. Hold on. Hold on. A billion dollars?

STEWART: A billion dollars.

KING: About that billion dollars - you might hear that and think, as I did, what? Well, Joe Stewart from Maringouin, La., knows of which he speaks. For 14 years, he was a trustee of the $9 billion Kellogg Foundation. During his tenure, that foundation doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants every year. Joe's met with just about every president dating back to Carter. Through Kellogg, he was in South Africa in the '80s helping to negotiate the end of apartheid. And probably because of all that experience, many of the descendants have signed on with Joe. They're pushing for that billion dollars of seed money, enough money to sustain educational initiatives and business initiatives for the descendants.

So where will the money come from? Joe says, at least 700 million of it will come from Georgetown but not just Georgetown because Joe pointed out something that I think a lot of people keep forgetting. Those 272 people were sold to save Georgetown from debt, yes. But they were owned by the Jesuits, an order within the Catholic Church. And, Joe mentions, the Catholic Church makes Georgetown look puny.

STEWART: I've been Catholic all my life. I think we're one of richest religions or institutions on the face of the earth.

KING: Huh.

STEWART: And my question - you know, my question is simple. Do you understand the damage that was done in 1838 when you considered people chattel?

KING: And so Joe plans to negotiate, not just with Georgetown but with the Jesuits.

STEWART: This isn't going to die and go away. And I think Georgetown, I think the Jesuits and I think the Catholic Church understand that this is not going away. And they're eventually going to have to deal with it.

KING: I asked the Maryland Jesuits, and they said yes, they are talking to Joe and representatives of his group. They wouldn't say much more except that it's early.

At the end of all this, I called Debra Tilson in Louisiana back. I'd spent so much time with her, and I wanted to ask her how we'd gone from a little adult literacy center in Maringouin to a billion-dollar ask. I wanted to know why talking about money makes her so ambivalent but it doesn't for others who live so far away. And Debra said to me, I want you to think about what happens if Georgetown cuts me a check.

TILSON: Here I am. I'm getting along with some of the same people that owned - you know, owned my family and stuff.

KING: With some people that owned your family?

TILSON: Yeah. And then now, you know, Georgetown is giving me this check, you know, because they want to make amends and all of that. But then what about the ones who purchased me, you know. I would be sitting here, like, saying well, OK I let Georgetown off the hook. Then a part of me would be like, well, but what about them? You know, they had your family, too. And they were beating them and doing everything. So now do I go over and I ask them - say, hey, look, Georgetown paid me off for them selling me, but what about you owning me?

KING: And these wouldn't be people far away in Washington, D.C. She says in Maringouin, black people and white people live with their past every day - they shop together; they eat together; they go to church together. Debra says it's by not saying some things, by not asking for some things that they can continue to live side by side. And it is also by not saying some things that we allow this massive debt to keep accruing exponentially.

After three days in Maringouin, I really had trouble leaving. All I needed to do was get on the highway and go back east toward Baton Rouge. But going around in a town like Maringouin, you can really see how history stretches into the present. And there was this thing that I'd heard from people who study reparations for slavery. They say the hard part about all of this isn't that history is so far away. The hard part is that history is just so close.


KING: We'd love to hear your thoughts on today's episode. Email us planetmoney@npr.org or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook. Today's show was produced by Alex Goldmark and Sally Helm. Thank you, guys. Bryant Urstadt is our editor.

We should start by saying thank you to Georgetown for their help with these two episodes. They did speak to us for the first episode but weren't available to comment for the second. Richard Cellini, who you heard in our previous episode, runs the Georgetown Memory Project. That's an independent nonprofit. It was created to identify descendants of the Georgetown University 272. If you think you might be a descendant, get in touch with them. They're at georgetownmemoryproject.org And enormous thanks to all of the descendants, both in and outside of Maringouin, who spent time with me for these two episodes. There are too many of you to thank individually, but thank you. Thank you all.

One more thing - NPR is working with the Knight Foundation to better understand how listeners like you spend time with PLANET MONEY and with other podcasts. You can help us out by taking a short, anonymous survey. It's at npr.podcastingsurvey - that's all one word - .com. It won't take more than 10 minutes, and we'd really appreciate it. Again, that's npr.podcastingsurvey.com. I'm Noel King. Thanks for listening.


KING: We're closing today's show with the music of Robert Pete Williams. He was a blues musician born in Zachary, La., about an hour's drive from Maringouin. He settled in Maringouin in 1968, and the song is a "Thousand Miles From Nowhere."


ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS: (Singing) Thousand miles, thousand miles. Thousand miles from nowhere. Sitting right round here darling in this little old one-horse town.

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