Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Every family’s story has a beginning. The life journey of the descendants of Nace Butler Sr. began on plantations in Maryland as slaves who were sold by the Jesuits and sent to Louisiana to work on plantations here.
“The Jesuits named my great-great-grandfather, who was part of the 1838 (Georgetown) slave sale,” said Dr. Onita Estes-Hicks, now living in New York.
On July 31, members of this family gathered for a noon Mass at Xavier University’s St. Katharine Drexel Chapel to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, after whom the first “Nace” was named. St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).
The original group of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits – now known as the Georgetown University 272 (GU272) – has a direct link to descendant Leroy Baker, a religion teacher at Archbishop Rummel High School and St. Peter Claver parishioner. Baker said the family has come a long way, and he thanked God to be blessed with the Naces in the family.
“We are here to celebrate who we are as a family,” Baker said. “Father (Thomas) Mulledy sold 272 slaves to New Orleans to keep Georgetown University afloat.”
Slave discovery in 2004
Being steeped in Catholicism for generations, Estes-Hicks said her family didn’t question the Jesuit saint after whom these descendants received their first names: Nace Butler Sr., born in 1785 in Maryland and died between 1870-78 in Louisiana; Nace Ignatius Butler Jr. (who escaped slavery and remained in Maryland); Nace Hicks Sr.; Nace Hicks Jr.; Nace Hicks III; Nace Lamar Hicks and Nace Lamar Hicks Jr. Five descendants have Nace as their middle name: Ignatius Nace Hicks Jr. (born in 1817); Gregory Nace Hicks; Brandon Nace Hicks; David Nace Hicks and Sahvren Nace Hicks, born in 2014.
It wasn’t until a 2004 family reunion, when Estes-Hicks’ niece Patricia Bayonne-Johnson researched the family’s ties to Catholicism and how they arrived in Louisiana, that the slavery connection was uncovered.
Baton Rouge genealogist Judy Riffel traced the family to Maryland and Father Mulledy. When Estes-Hicks searched the internet for information on Father Mulledy, she learned that as president of Georgetown University, he sold her great-great-grandfather Nace Butler Sr. and his family to Jesse Beatty and Henry Johnson of Louisiana in 1838. The slaves landed at a plantation in Maringouin, Louisiana.
Estes-Hicks, who has four degrees including a doctorate and taught English at the State University of New York for 38 years, said it took her a month to recover from the news, having been shaken to the core.
“It was like an attack on everything we knew about ourselves,” she told an America Magazine podcast earlier this year. “Our whole identity was wrapped around not only being cradle but also cultural Catholics.”
Being Catholic is her life
That background included her father Nace Hicks Sr., a stalwart Catholic who was a founding member of St. Monica Parish in New Orleans, a daily communicant and Knights of Peter Claver member. The family was surrounded by priests and the Blessed Sacrament sisters who taught the Hicks children at St. Monica School and ran Xavier University of Louisiana. Their rich life was filled with activities from St. Monica and the junior music school at Xavier and hid the impact of segregation in the church, Estes-Hicks said.
Their Blessed Sacrament Sisters’ connection was even closer than most. Augusta “Gussie” Hicks, then as an eighth-grade student at St. Monica, was selected to read an essay to Mother Katharine Drexel on a visit to one of her Blessed Sacrament Sisters-run school in New Orleans.
“We had this constant sense of how wonderful the Catholic Church was,” Estes-Hicks said. “It’s not a church or school; it’s a part of your life.”
The news about the Jesuits selling her ancestor didn’t cause her to lose faith, she said. She made peace with the Catholic Church and is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Harlem pastored by a Jesuit priest with whom she has spoken about Georgetown.
“I never thought of being anything but Catholic,” she said. “It is part of my being. It is who I am.”
On hallowed ground
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the family was devastated and too busy with recovery to delve deeper into their history. In 2010, Estes-Hicks returned to family research and planned a trip to Maryland, where the Nace Butler Sr. story began. She emailed Georgetown University informing them that her family wanted to visit the plantations where her family worked and the Catholic chapel where they worshipped.
“We wanted to get some sense of where our ancestors were from,” she said.
Forty-four family members made a “sacred sites pilgrimage” weekend in October 2016 and were given a reception by university president John DeGioia, family history records and an audiovisual presentation from the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown, where Jesuit records are meticulously kept. Included in the documents was a manifest from the Katherine Jackson ship that brought her ancestors from Maryland to Louisiana.
“The most gratifying thing was to really see what history meant,” she said. “It was one of the best things we did as a family.”
She and Leroy Baker returned on April 18, 2017, for Georgetown University’s liturgy of “Remembrance, Contrition and Hope,” attended by slave descendants, Jesuits, Georgetown students and administrators.
At this event, two buildings on campus named after those associated with slave sales were renamed, Estes-Hicks said. Mulledy Hall became Isaac Hawkins Hall after the first slaved listed in the 1838 sale documents, and McSherry Hall became Anne Marie Becraft Hall after a free woman of color who became an Oblate sister and started a Catholic black girls’ school in Georgetown.
As part of Georgetown University’s Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation initiative, its working group has continued discussions with the student body to make reparation for the institution’s slavery past. Students even voted on a referendum to start a foundation to benefit the GU272 descendants, and descendants have been granted “legacy” status for preferential admissions, Estes-Hicks said.
While some descendants feel more can be done, Estes-Hicks’ concern is the spiritual repentance of the Jesuits. She hopes the Jesuits adopt something similar to the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ “Family Prayer” recited at all Masses renouncing racism and violence and pray it at all of their institutions as well as teach Jesuits’ part in slavery history at all Jesuit institutions.
Mass connects family
Family member Earl Williams of Atlanta, who attended the Georgetown University liturgy and the Mass in New Orleans, said the local St. Ignatius Feast Day Mass honors the Catholic spirituality of their ancestors – a faith given at birth to all of them. Since his discovery of being descended from a slave, it’s been a mission and journey to learn more.
“We came here proud of being church,” Williams, 73, said. “That’s how I am moving forward with all of this.”
At the Xavier Mass, Father Etido Jerome, Xavier chaplain, encouraged family members to continue the Ignatius name, since their St. Ignatius Mass was one of joy, victory and redemption.
Estes-Hicks said the family’s gratitude for the rich educational and moral influence that the Blessed Sacrament sisters had on them prompted their selection of Xavier’s St. Katharine Drexel Chapel for the Mass. When Xavier’s chapel opened in 2012, the family donated a pew in honor of Augusta Hicks who not only met St. Katharine Drexel but also attended Xavier Preparatory School (founded by the Blessed Sacrament sisters) and Xavier University of Louisiana.
Estes-Hicks remains fond of the Ignatius name and said her family will continue the annual St. Ignatius Mass due to family members having the moniker and because St. Ignatius himself was a brilliant, pious man.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.