Descendants of slaves sold to fund Georgetown University played key role in establishing HBCUs

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Descendants of slaves preserving family history through education

DONALDSONVILLE, La. (WAFB) - A statue of St. Joseph no longer casts its shadow on the church that anchored St. Emma Plantation near Donaldsonville for decades.

The church was removed years ago and replaced with another mission across town, and the sculpture is all that’s left to mark the former location of St. Joseph’s Mission.

This statue used to overlook St. Joseph's Mission before the church was removed.
This statue used to overlook St. Joseph's Mission before the church was removed. (Source: WAFB)

Time has beaten the home that housed the church’s caretakers. A farm and trailer houses surround the land now, though the rural quiet still feels sacred.

“Who would’ve thought that out of that little hamlet that much history would come?" Donna Comeaux said, peering over a table covered with photographs of the old mission.

Comeaux took Mass at St. Joseph’s on Sunday mornings and returned on Sunday afternoons to see her cousins and grandparents, who owned the land and cared for the building. She swept the floors there in the summers so it’d be clean for the students who used the building for school during the fall.

“That was always important to me, and now I know where that comes from," she said.

Each person in each picture Comeaux picks from her coffee table is, in some way, a teacher with a tree of students. But two in particular have a bigger educational lineage.

“They set that bar," she said.

Donna Comeaux
Donna Comeaux (Source: WAFB)

John Sebastian Jones helped found Southern University. He was the school’s first dean, and his son served as Grambling University’s second president. “Prez” Jones also coached the Grambling football team, until he hired legendary coach, Eddie Robinson.

But that family history was lost on Donna, erased because of a third university that her ancestors are, in a way, responsible for, though not of their own choosing.

“I would’ve never known. I would’ve never known,” she said. “Now I know where I get my metal from.”

Jesuit priests sold the matriarch of Donna’s Louisiana family and around 300 other slaves to help pay for the construction of Georgetown University. Their descendants, who primarily live in Louisiana, call themselves the GU272.

Comeaux did not know that part of her family’s history until a New York Times articles shed light on the sale in 2016. A cousin Comeaux did not know found her through a genealogy website and explained the GU272 story.

“We got to talking and I mean, we talked for hours,” Comeaux said with a twinge of emotion. “It was like, ‘Wow.’"

“What’s in the dark always comes to light and the truth shall set you free. There’s still some people that don’t want to admit that truth," she said.

Donna says dryly that her family simply turned “lemons into lemonade," but their metal helped make an education attainable for thousands of black Louisianans.

Out of one slave, valued by the church for what she might mean for white education, two historically black colleges and universities thrive. Countless other family members impacted students’ lives in small church houses and schools like St. Joseph’s.

“I can’t describe it, but I’m just so proud that I’m part of something big. Little old me? You know? Who would’ve thought?” she said.

Like so many of her cousins, Donna remains Catholic. She says it’s because of her ancestors, whose faith survived unimaginable tests.

“No matter what the circumstances were, we always had God and prayer in mind,” she said. “That just got you through and gets you through still.”

“At the end of the day, I needed God. It’s not the faith, it’s God,” she said.

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