Episode 766: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part One : Planet Money For the residents of a small Louisiana town, there's always been a question about their past: How'd they get there? Solving the mystery only raised more questions.

Episode 766: Georgetown, Louisiana, Part One

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There was always something a little odd about Maringouin.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Continue on Louisiana 411 North for 5 miles.

KING: Big trees, Spanish moss. It's a small town in Louisiana out in the country. It's about 1,100 people. Maringouin means mosquito in Cajun French. To get there, you drive west out of Baton Rouge. You cross the Mississippi, pass through sugar cane fields and cotton fields. In Maringouin, everyone always seemed to be related in a way that was strange, even for a small town.

DEBRA TILSON: When you greet someone in Maringouin - hey, cuz (ph). Hey, cuz. What's up, cuz? Oh, cuz, what's up, cuz?

KING: That's Debra Tilson (ph). She grew up in Maringouin. And she says the thing that made the joke about everybody being cousins so funny was that it was actually true but no one really knew why. It wasn't like there was a founding grandmother or founding grandfather who'd come there first, at least not as far as they knew. It was just this series of coincidences.


KING: I saw one of those coincidences firsthand. On the night I met Debra, we went to a town hall meeting in Maringouin together.


KING: And afterward, we're standing around in the parking lot and we bump into this young police officer. Debra asks him, are you a Harris? And he says yeah. And then they start talking about people that they know in common.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Jennifer Meadows (ph) and Virginia James' (ph) sister. What's her name?

KING: And I'm hanging out and I'm watching them. And I'm getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. And then I realize what's actually going on in this conversation between Debra Tilson and the police officer. Wait, does that mean the two of you are related?

TILSON: Oh, yeah.

KING: You didn't know that Debra was your cousin?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He didn't know I was his cousin, either.

KING: Wait. She's your cousin, too? You're his cousin, too? Can I ask you how you feel discovering your two newest cousins?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Well, it's no surprise. I mean, I'm - that's Maringouin.

KING: That is Maringouin, a very small town that had some big mysteries about its past until a year ago, when some of those mysteries were solved. I'm Noel King. And today on PLANET MONEY, we tell the story of what happens when people in this little town in Louisiana figure out how they got to Louisiana. The answer put Maringouin and thousands of people with roots in Maringouin at the center of a fight over how to pay a very old and very complicated debt.


KING: The first person from Maringouin to learn the truth about Maringouin was Maxine Crump. She was a well-known TV personality in Louisiana.

MAXINE CRUMP: I was a reporter and a morning show host and then a morning show anchor and then a field reporter from there.

KING: She lives in Baton Rouge but she grew up in Maringouin in the '50s and '60s. Her family owned land in town but this was the Jim Crow South. And her dad worked a lot of jobs so that he could work for himself. He was a barber. He was a farmer. He owned a blues club on Wheelock Lane with a big spotlight out front so people could find it.

CRUMP: It was called Hideout Nightclub.

KING: Hideout Nightclub. And as a kid, were you allowed to hang out there?


CRUMP: Are you kidding? No.

KING: Maxine was a very curious kid. She was always pestering grownups with questions.

CRUMP: Growing up in the country, parents don't often sit around and answer kids' questions.

KING: (Laughter).

CRUMP: I mean, the culture of the country is go play.

KING: Her big question was how did the family end up here in Maringouin? And she was curious because there were these mysteries, like the family in Maringouin was Catholic and they were black and they spoke English. And this is a bayou town in Louisiana.

CRUMP: Most of the Catholics I knew that were black were French-speaking.

KING: Yeah. Yeah.

CRUMP: And people used to say you're from the bayou area where a lot of people speak French, do you? And it's like, no. And they say anybody in your town? No, none of the black people speak French.

KING: And then there was the story told by older people, often not long before they died to the next oldest. Maxine heard it from a 90-year-old cousin. The story was they had come from up North, from Baltimore.

CRUMP: I was thinking how did they get here? Blacks didn't travel during those days. It was during slavery. So what does he mean he came from here? How'd he get here?

KING: Maxine grew up, she left Maringouin but she still always wondered. And then one sunny day a little over a year ago, Maxine's driving out to Maringouin to visit her mom and her cellphone rings.

CRUMP: I answer my cellphone and someone says my name is Richard Cellini. And I have some information for you about your family.

KING: Maxine was like, OK. But then this guy says a name - Cornelius Hawkins. Well, there are five Cornelius' is in her family and Hawkins was her grandmother's name. And so Maxine asks him, what do you know? And he starts to explain. And as he does...

CRUMP: I felt like my car was moving and that I had stopped.

KING: Here's the guy who is on the other end of the line.

RICHARD CELLINI: My name is Richard Cellini. And I'm a software and data executive in Cambridge, Mass.

KING: Richard is 53. He's a moderate Republican.

Richard, are you white?

CELLINI: Yes, I'm Caucasian.

KING: He's also a proud alum of Georgetown University, the Jesuit College in Washington, D.C.

CELLINI: I love Georgetown. I went to Georgetown for two university degrees and I think it's a fine institution.

KING: One day in the fall of 2015, he's noodling around online and he sees a story in the student newspaper, The Hoya. Students are protesting an ugly part of Georgetown's history. In the early 1800s, the Maryland Jesuits owned and ran Georgetown. They also owned thousands of acres of land. And the Jesuits owned about 300 people - slaves - who worked their plantations.

In the 1830s, Georgetown expanded and got itself into debt. It owed banks about $47,000. So two Jesuit priests, one of them the president of Georgetown, struck a deal to save the college. They sold 272 men and women and children to two planters from Louisiana. The sale brought in $115,000 and Georgetown was saved.

So Richard's reading this story and he gets curious about those people. He wonders, what happened to them after they were sold? Georgetown had already set up a working group to examine its ties to slavery, so Richard wrote to a guy on that group. The guy writes back right away and says we looked into this. Those people got down to Louisiana and they died.

CELLINI: They all immediately succumbed to a fever in what he described as the malodorous swamp world of Louisiana. And I looked at that email and I thought that's just not possible. Even the Titanic had survivors.

KING: Richard remembers hearing that story at Georgetown back when he was an undergrad in the '80s but now he realizes it doesn't really make sense. So he writes this guy back and says listen, if you don't mind, I'm going to take a look. He goes online and he finds a digital copy of the bill of sale from 1838 with their names.

CELLINI: The youngest was William (ph). He was 6 months old. The oldest was Daniel (ph). He was 80. Robert (ph) was sickly and Steven (ph) was lame. Betsy (ph) was married to Sam (ph).

KING: And here's where curiosity turned into something else, although Richard has trouble saying exactly what it was.

CELLINI: I think it's fair to say I began with a desire to speak with the dead about their lives and what became of them.

KING: And so he decided to look for them. And it's not like Richard had any experience finding people but he did what anyone would do.

CELLINI: I Googled them.

KING: You googled them - 272 people who were last seen 175 years ago?

CELLINI: Yeah. No, I Googled them. I put in, you know, Georgetown, Jesuit, plantation, slaves, Louisiana and I found them.

KING: He found one. On the first hit, there were a couple of paragraphs in a genealogy journal written by a genealogist in Washington state. Her name was Patricia Bayonne-Johnson. Patricia was from Louisiana and she had traced her family roots back from Louisiana, back to Maryland and then back to Georgetown.

And in her post was one of the names Richard had seen in the Georgetown archives, a man named Nace. So Richard gets in touch with Patricia and she helps him find another genealogist down in Louisiana. Richard calls her and he asks, do you think we could find out what happened to these people?

CELLINI: She thought about it. There's a long pause and she said yes, we could do that. But she said it would take a lot of time and a lot of money. So, you know, as a Boston entrepreneur, I said, well, how much time and how much money? And again, there was a long pause and she said, you know, a hundred hours at $25 an hour. And I thought, heck, I could hide that on my credit card from my wife.

KING: (Laughter).

CELLINI: It'll take her three months to figure out, you know, where that $2,500 went.

KING: The genealogist gets to work tracing 272 family trees. And after a couple of months, the names start to come until they reach from 1838 right up into the present and Richard has a spreadsheet with 150 people, some of them dead but some of them living.

For a while, Richard sits on the names. He feels weird. He's an outsider. He doesn't know these people. He's worried if he contacts them they'll wonder why he's poking around. But, he says, he did get in touch with Georgetown to tell them what he'd found.

CELLINI: You know, I got back very polite, you know, responses. Thank you very much for this information. And I wrote to two senior Jesuit priests and told them that what we had all been told wasn't true, that the Georgetown slaves could be identified and their descendants were alive today.

KING: And was everyone like, oh, my God, Richard, you did it?


KING: He says Georgetown really didn't seem too interested. So in the meantime, Richard wrote to a friend at The New York Times. And he said, hey, I've got a story for you. A year ago, The Times ran a story about the Georgetown sale. And from that point on, people say, it was kind of a frenzy. Maxine Crump was profiled in the story. And people from Maringouin see Maxine, Maxine from Maringouin, in The New York Times. And then there were phone calls and Facebook posts and local TV coverage. One mom told me about frantically texting her two kids from inside the same house - they were upstairs, she was downstairs - to tell them that the mystery of Maringouin and this big family had finally been solved.

So now people from Maringouin understood where they'd come from. And for some of them, there was relief in that and there was pride. But the answer to this mystery was terrible. Maxine can't stop thinking about what the journey from Maryland to Louisiana must have been like.

CRUMP: When they're all loaded on this boat, it wasn't like taking a tour or anything where you get a ticket, you know where you're going. They didn't know where they were going. And I just can't imagine how frightened the children must have been.

KING: And she can't stop thinking about how we tell ourselves that slavery is so far gone.

Maxine, do you know how many children Cornelius had?

CRUMP: I think six.

KING: Do you know if any of them were born in slavery?

CRUMP: Yes. Austin was 10 at the end of slavery.

KING: And Austin was your great-grandfather.

CRUMP: Yes, my grandmother's father. It is not far away.

KING: It is not far away. I spoke to older people in Maringouin who remember picking cotton as children for a few dollars a week. A lot of people in Maringouin are doing just fine now, but there are also some very, very poor people. One in 3 live below the poverty line. You drive around and you see lovely brick houses, and you also see really beat-up shotgun shacks. After The New York Times story ran, Richard says, Georgetown suddenly became deeply interested in the descendants. And now that working group on slavery has another task - figure out what we should do about this. What, if anything, do we owe them?

Maxine and Richard, meanwhile, had become friends. And they had an idea. They wrote an op ed in The Washington Post, and they said, how about this - how about anyone who is descended from one of the slaves gets legacy status if they apply to Georgetown? Now, legacy status is not a guarantee that you get into Georgetown. It's a boost. Say your application is just as good as another students but your parents or your family went to Georgetown. Well, you get a boost. And if your family has donated to the alumni fund every year, that's a bigger boost.

Georgetown's Working Group was deliberating on all of this, and in the fall of 2016 Georgetown President John DeGioia stood in front of a formal group of students and professors and descendants and he said Georgetown had decided how it would start to atone. He had a list.


JOHN DEGIOIA: The report makes several recommendations that addresses this responsibility to acknowledge our history.

KING: And to be honest, at first it kind of seemed like Georgetown was atoning to Georgetown. It was real stuff that DeGioia was talking about, but it was stuff at Georgetown, on campus. Two buildings on campus would be renamed, one of them for Isaac Hawkins, one of the enslaved men. Georgetown would strengthen support of its library and establish a center focused on racial justice and create a memorial. And then President DeGioia said something in a way that was so low-key that when I was watching the video at first I didn't catch it. And some people who were there that day told me that at first they didn't catch it either.


DEGIOIA: Regarding opportunity and access, the Working Group recommends quote, "descendants of those owned by the Maryland province receive an advantage in the admissions process."

KING: OK. That there was a lot like Maxine and Richard's suggestion. Descendants get an advantage, a little boost when they apply. DeGioia says, you know, we do that with other students, so...


DEGIOIA: We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants.

KING: When he got done speaking, President DeGioia took questions from the audience. And there was this one very telling moment.


DEGIOIA: Gentlemen right behind you. Please introduce yourself.

JOSEPH STEWART: May I please join you?

DEGIOIA: Well, sure.

KING: He's an older guy. He's bald. He's got glasses and a red tie. He goes up and he stands beside DeGioia.


STEWART: How are you doing now?

DEGIOIA: I'm great.

STEWART: Joe Stewart.

DEGIOIA: It's a pleasure.

STEWART: My name is Joe Stewart, and I'm a descendant of the 272. And...


KING: He's holding a piece of paper, but he doesn't read from it. He says we want to collaborate with Georgetown, but this working group, it didn't include any of us, any descendants.


STEWART: And so to date, we have not had the privilege of being a part of the Georgetown University family in working with the Working Group. 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: Now, that was last fall. But I heard this same thing from a lot of descendants, that they just didn't feel listened to and that some of them still don't. Georgetown had taken a concrete step for them with this preferential admissions status, yes, but who all is going to benefit? I actually found a handful of descendants who are applying to Georgetown. Remember, there are descendants all over the country.

I talked to a brother and sister from New Orleans who I'd guess will probably get in. They come from a well-heeled family. They're both very good students. But the further you get from cities, the deeper you get into the country, the closer you get to Maringouin, the harder it becomes to find anyone. And then on my second to last day in town I went to visit one of the older descendants, Phyllis Mims (ph). I pulled up to her house and she invited me in.

PHYLLIS MIMS: OK, have a seat, ma'am.

KING: And there was a teenage girl sitting in an armchair looking kind of bored.

Would you like me to take my shoes off?

But when she heard I was there to talk about Georgetown, she bolted out of that chair and she said, I can go to that college. Lionisha Howard (ph) is Ms. Mims' granddaughter. She's 17. She's a high school junior. She's tall and lean. She's got a goofy smile and the same brown eyes you see all over Maringouin. She's going to school in Baton Rouge this year to get a break from small-town life. And about a month ago, she bumped into her favorite teacher in the hallway.

LIONISHA HOWARD: He know because I told him last year that I was from Maringouin. He was like, oh, Maringouin, the mosquito town. I'm like, yeah. And he was like, oh, so, you know, Georgetown - they're doing something about descendants of slaves and stuff. I'm like, this interesting. So you - tell me more about it. He was like, I'm going to get the paper. So he went in the classroom and got the paper, and he gave it to me. He read it to me. And he was like, you should look into this yourself and take it to your grandma.

KING: Lionisha has always had plans that don't include Louisiana. She's just never known what to do about them. And now here's a teacher telling her about preferential admissions to Georgetown University. And ever since then she's been imagining herself on that campus.

What do you picture it being like?

HOWARD: Well, I see - you know, I see it being just big and beautiful. You know, people walking around, acting like mature people, you know? And it's quiet, the wind blowing. It's just beautiful, you know?

KING: She's even thought about that coming from Maringouin, fitting in at Georgetown might not be that easy.

HOWARD: I would feel like the outlier on a plot, like on a graph.

KING: Like the outlier on a graph? Is that a math term?

HOWARD: Yes, it is. Like, you have a bunch of data, and you have all the data on there and it's all in one space and then they got these few that's out. So they're outliers, you know?

KING: You think you'd probably be a bit of an outsider?

HOWARD: Yes, ma'am.

KING: That's not an easy thing to be when you're 17 or 18.

HOWARD: I know. But, I mean, if I want greater I want to push through it and not think about it. So...

KING: So I ask Lionisha if I can see her report card and she says yeah.

HOWARD: First we have Homeroom Literacy 3 where that's for the juniors. That's an A.


HOWARD: ACT English is A.

KING: English is an A.

HOWARD: This is Spanish 2. I have a A - an A.

KING: An A in Spanish - nice.

HOWARD: Yeah. Algebra 2 is a B.


HOWARD: English 3 is an A. Chemistry - A.

KING: An A in Chemistry.

HOWARD: No, wait, wait. That's a D.

KING: Chemistry is a D. OK. So some really good grades in there. Some As. Some Bs. And then how many...


KING: Two Ds. All right. So let's talk a little bit about - yeah, you're doing the face. You're doing the face. What's that face?

HOWARD: The Ds - I...

KING: The Ds, she says, are just not her best subjects. But she says very earnestly if she gets into Georgetown, she'll just be better, and she'll do better. And if Lionisha applies, she might get in, but if she's like most applicants, she will not. Georgetown is one of the most competitive schools in the country, and this preferential admission status, however it's going to be defined - it is not a free pass. So Georgetown's offer may be useful to some descendants - yes, absolutely - but it is not useful to those people who are most likely to need help. I asked Father Matthew Carnes about this. He's a professor at Georgetown, and he was on the working group. I told him about Lionisha, and he was sympathetic.

MICHAEL CARNES: We're very aware of how vast the divide is among students that have access to the kinds of educations that would prepare them to come to Georgetown and really thrive here because one of our priorities is we want students who can come here and thrive. They can really come and do their absolute best work and be ready to be in this space.

KING: Georgetown keeps saying, let us do what we do best. Let us educate people. Of course, there is another thing that Georgetown could offer - money. Some of the descendants have brought this up. Richard Cellini has stayed very involved with the community of descendants, and he also talks to people at Georgetown. And he says there are people on both sides who say this should not become about money. Here's what he thinks.

CELLINI: You know, when people say it's not about the money, you know one thing for sure. It's only about the money. This story has only ever been about the money.

KING: And that part is true. This started with money - $115,000 for 272 lives. And what if it ended with money? If an institution or a person or even a country wrote a check to somehow atone for slavery and for its legacy, what would that cost? And who would get paid? And would everyone accept? Debra Tilson, the woman who met her cousin in the parking lot in Maringouin - I talked to her about this.

TILSON: There is a sense of pride that says, look, if you wronged me, I shouldn't have to come to you and ask you, you know? You call me up and tell me - say, hey, look, you know, hey, I got some things for you.

KING: Next week, we go back to Georgetown and back to Louisiana to talk about money.


KING: Coming up, we'll have a preview of next week's episode.


KING: We'd love to hear your thoughts about today's show. You can email us planetmoney@npr.org, or you can find us on Twitter or Facebook. Today's show was produced by Sally Helm. Sally, thank you. Bryant Urstadt edits PLANET MONEY. Alex Goldmark produces the show.

Couple of people we want to thank - the first and best reporting on the Georgetown sale was done by Rachel Swarns of The New York Times. If you want to read more about this, The Times continues to have excellent rolling coverage of this story. The genealogist in Louisiana who worked with Richard Cellini is Judy Riffel. Thanks to Professor Adam Rothman at Georgetown University.

If you're looking for something else to listen to, check out Up First. It's a new podcast from NPR, and it's a daily news show. It's about 10 minutes long, and it comes out every weekday morning. So when you wake up, check out Up First. You can get it at npr.org/podcasts, on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Noel King. Thanks for listening.


KING: Here's a preview of next week's show.

So this is doable. This math is doable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's doable. The data is out there. The numbers are huge, but they're not infinite.

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