Old church housing an exhibition telling the story of slaves

A former Donaldsonville Episcopal Church, built in 1873 on land donated by a Louisiana slave owner and governor, now houses a new permanent exhibit that honors the slaves who worked the Louisiana sugar cane fields.

It opened on the weekend of June 19, the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States

“It is dedicated to the slaves who were brought here and their descendants,” said Kathe Hambrick, curator of the exhibit.

Hambrick is also the founder of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville; the former Episcopal Church in Nicholls Street is now a museum campus.

The name of the exhibition is “GU272 and Ascension Parish: The Jesuit and Episcopal Connection to Slavery”. This refers to 272 slaves that the Jesuit founders of Georgetown University sold to two Louisiana sugar cane planters in 1838 to pay off university debts.

The Jesuit order officially apologized in 2017 to the descendants of slaves.

One of the planters was Henry Johnson, who was governor of Louisiana from 1824 to 1828. Johnson co-founded Ascension Episcopal Church in Donaldsonville and donated the property where the church was built.

It was this connection that inspired Hambrick to choose the church as the site of the exhibition.

A solemn inauguration took place on Saturday. The tour of the exhibit, which features permanent information panels and virtual links to information from the Georgetown Slavery Records, followed a schedule that included a reception. Going forward, the exhibit will be available by appointment, by calling the River Road African American Museum at 225-474-5553.

Hambrick said the Georgetown archives contain a lot of information about the 272 slaves, but local residents wouldn’t necessarily know where to find them.

“I thought, ‘We’re going to do an exhibition,'” she said.

The project is funded by a grant from American Slavery’s Legacy Across Space and Time, a nonprofit Social Science Research Council project. He also got a New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park grant from the National Park Service.

The former church that houses the exhibit was sold several years ago after being taken out of service by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana due to lack of members.

The building, which still has its original pews and pulpit, was purchased in 2017 by historical curator Darryl Gissel, former chairman of the board of the River Road African American Museum.

“We were very concerned that someone would try to buy it and move it. It had to be preserved,” said Gissel, who is the executive director of Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

New Orleans historian and genealogist Karran Royal was the historian for the new exhibit. She and others founded the GU272 Descendants Association, and Royal served for several years as its executive director.

For the new permanent exhibit in Donaldsonville, Royal said it “deepened the family lines in Ascension Parish”.

“Working on the project helped me uncover so many details about these families,” she said.

Royal learned, for example, that the descendants of Henrietta Hill, a woman sold by the Jesuits and brought to Louisiana, include a founding dean of Southern University, a president of Grambling University and a sheriff of the era of the reconstruction.

There is also an artistic component in the new exhibition “Jesuit and Episcopal Connection to Slavery”.

Prior to the sale of the old Donaldsonville church, its original stained glass windows were removed and replaced with frosted glass.

But brilliant colors are coming back.

Louisiana-based artist Malaika Favorite, who is the artist-in-residence of the River Road African American Museum, was commissioned to create artwork that was printed on acrylic panels and placed in the frosted glass windows, creating a beautiful stained glass effect.

“They are dedicated to slaves,” Hambrick said.

Jerry B. Hatch