DONALDSONVILLE, La.—A former Episcopal church in Donaldsonville, built in 1873 on land donated by a slave owner and Louisiana governor, is now home to a new, permanent exhibit that pays tribute to enslaved people who worked Louisiana's sugarcane fields
It will open on the weekend of Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S.
“It's dedicated to the enslaved people 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 on Nicholls Street is now a campus of the museum.
The name of the exhibit is “GU272 and Ascension Parish: The Jesuit and Episcopal Connection to Slavery.” That references 272 enslaved people who Georgetown University's Jesuit founders sold to two Louisiana sugarcane planters in 1838 to pay off the university's debts.
The Jesuit order formally apologized in 2017 to the descendants of the enslaved.
One of the planters was Henry Johnson, who was Louisiana governor from 1824 to 1828. Johnson co-founded the Episcopal Church of Ascension in Donaldsonville and donated the property where the church was built.
It's that connection that inspired Hambrick to choose the church as the site of the exhibit.
A formal opening was held Saturday. Viewing of the exhibit, which includes permanent panels of information and virtual links to information from the Georgetown Slavery Archives, followed a program that included a reception. In the future, the exhibit will be available to see by appointment, by calling the River Road African American Museum at 225-474-5553.
Hambrick said the Georgetown archives include plenty of information about the 272 enslaved people, but local residents wouldn't necessarily know where to find it.
“I thought, ‘We're going to make an exhibit”' she said.
The project is funded by a grant from American Slavery's Legacy Across Space and Time, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council. It also got a grant from the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park of the National Park Service.
The former church that's home to the exhibit was sold several years ago after it was decommissioned 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 historic preservationist Darryl Gissel, a former chairman of the board of the River Road African American Museum.
“We had great concern that somebody would attempt to purchase it and move it. It needed to be preserved,” said Gissel, who is the chief administrative officer for Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
Historian and genealogist Karran Royal of New Orleans 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 she “went more deeply into 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 Reconstruction-Era sheriff.
There is also an art component to the new “Jesuit and Episcopal Connection to Slavery” exhibit.
Before the old church building in Donaldsonville was sold, its original stained glass windows were removed and replaced with frosted glass.
But the brilliant colors are returning.
Louisiana artist Malaika Favorite, who is the resident artist of the River Road African American Museum, was commissioned to create art that has been printed onto acrylic panels and set into the frosted-glass windows, creating a beautiful stained-glass effect.
“They're dedicated to the enslaved,” Hambrick said.