September 27, 2018

A Descendant’s Fight to Preserve Her Ancestors’ History

The air was thick, the moss-laden trees dulling Louisiana’s smoldering March heat. We had only just unloaded ourselves from our rented van into the town of Rosedale and the open arms of Jessica (“Millie”) Tilson and Bernadine Poole, our tour guides for the day. Chatty and warm, the two women welcomed our small group from Georgetown University—professors and students from “Facing Georgetown’s History” and “Social Justice Documentary”—and we crossed the road to a whites-only cemetery. Now, wearing a Georgetown crew neck and standing next to the grave of slave trader Austin Woolfolk, Tilson told us how the man infamous for selling Frederick Douglass’ aunt had transported Tilson’s own enslaved ancestors from Maryland to Louisiana.

Tilson is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius “Neily” Hawkins, one of the 272 enslaved men, women, and children Georgetown sold in 1838 in part to pay off the college’s debt—now known as GU272. (Our field research trip was one of a number of efforts by Georgetown's faculty and students to document and understand the legacies of Jesuit slaveholding.) In 2016, escalating student protests and Rachel Swarns’ feature in The New York Times lent a revived sense of urgency to the work initiated by Georgetown faculty and leadership the previous year. In 2017, two days past the one-year anniversary of Swarns’ article, Georgetown held a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope and renamed two buildings on campus, once named for the former college presidents who orchestrated the 1838 sale, to Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall.

That spring day in Louisiana, Tilson nimbly linked her family tree to the institution emblazoned on her blue crew neck. Currently living in Baton Rouge with her two daughters, she spent much of her childhood at her grandparents’ in Maringouin, home to many GU272 descendant families and Rosedale’s neighbor. In a gratifying narrative twist, Tilson owns part of what was formally West Oak Plantation, the land where her enslaved ancestors labored.

Jessica "Millie" Tilson stands by the grave of Alex Scott.

photo by: Amy Guay

Jessica "Millie" Tilson stands by the grave of Alex Scott at a cemetery in Rosedale, Louisiana.

Now, she’s fighting to have it designated by the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a cemetery that abuts the former plantation, an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary cemetery, the final resting place for members of the GU272.

For Tilson, seeking designation was the logical next step in her quest to preserve her ancestors’ history. “In Louisiana, we’ve always had historical sites for plantations and land,” said Tilson. “[The National Register] was one of those things that I knew about but didn’t know how the process worked.”

She first campaigned for the recognition of West Oak cemetery, the first black cemetery in the area. Tilson guesses that GU272 are buried there, but a combination of time, Louisiana’s volatile water levels, and a lack of records makes it nearly impossible to know for certain.

The same issues plague West Oak Elementary, a potential treasure trove of insight into the lives of Maringouin’s black children. Tilson guesses the original 272, including her great-great-great-great grandfather, helped build the schoolhouse, now dilapidated and secluded on the side of the road.

“The way it’s built: the tin roof, the old wood, it’s off the ground … That’s what I’m thinking, but I can’t prove it because in 1923 all that was underwater,” she said. “It’s hard to date that school. Everything is hard to date because Louisiana didn’t keep track of any area outside of New Orleans. If it wasn’t in New Orleans, no one was really monitoring it.”

Interior of West Oak Lane Elementary School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

photo by: Debra Tilson

Interior of West Oak Lane Elementary School.

Exterior of West Oak Lane Elementary School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

photo by: Debra Tilson

Exterior of West Oak Lane Elementary School.

Tilson hopes to capitalize on the unique geography of The Immaculate Heart of Mary cemetery, a burial ground bisected by a road and witness to rumbling cargo trains. “Hawkins is buried there, but I was also trying to piggyback on us being buried segregated,” Tilson explained. “You have black cemeteries and white cemeteries, but here, you actually have us divided. Most people, they heard about those in the ‘50s and the ‘60s but didn’t know they exist to this day. This could be the last cemetery that does this in the nation.”

Despite her advocacy and the sites’ affiliation with high-profile news, Tilson has encountered a difficult road to designation.

“I think the biggest challenge would be to actually get someone to sit down and listen to the reason why these should be historical landmarks,” she said. “Recently, I walked into the Department of Culture and I started telling them the story of my ancestors’ amazing journey. The National Register Coordinator gave me a questionnaire, but the questionnaire is set up like you’re supposed to make it to court. You have to go through: ‘Why is it important?’ ‘Who is buried there?’ To me, they’re important people. But to other people they’re just slaves; they’re just slaves in America.”

“[At the Department of Culture] I said [that] these people are important because Georgetown would not be here if it wasn’t for them,’” Tilson continued. “I was trying to tell the reasons why they are important. Henry Johnson, the Governor of Louisiana, bought the GU272 personally. They were around all these politicians and elite history makers, which I think should give them some type of credit.”

“Even though it’s coming on the news and all that, some people just don’t care about it,” she added.

Tilson hopes a National Register designation can help make the history of her ancestors known, whether through educational tours of the South or simple informational plaques placed at the cemeteries and the school. Ultimately, however, she wants to designate Maringouin—all 469.5 acres of it—as a historical site.

“That’s my end goal—I’m just doing it piece by piece instead of all at once,” Tilson said. “Georgetown exists because of the people in Maringouin. Georgetown is a historical site, therefore Maringouin should be a historical site. We just need to piggyback off of Georgetown’s legacy. That’s how I want to frame it: You exist because of them!”

Amy Guay is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. An American Studies major at Georgetown University, her research and writing focuses on Asian and Pacific Islander American history and heritage.

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