A St. Landry Parish school is reflecting on its role in one of America’s greatest tragedies, the slave trade.
On Sunday, the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau, paid tribute to the slaves who were forced to work on its property two centuries ago.
“I wanted to know who I was. I didn’t know enough about my family and doing my DNA just made me want to know more and more and more,” said Dorson Purdy, who helped organize the event.
It was a bittersweet day for many of the descendants of the enslaved people who gathered at the school.
“When I stood there and looked out at all those faces that are related to me and that are related to this place. And I’m standing where my grandparents a hundred and something years ago stood, it just hit me all at one time,” said Purdy, whose ancestors were forced to work and live on the property.
“The reality is, it was a forced labor and against their will and that is just not right. It’s very painful to think about that actually,” said Roslyn Chenier, another descendent.
Chenier and Purdy both spent years trying to find out more about their ancestry.
They met after learning through a DNA website that they are related.
They also learned they have common ancestors.
“I’m a direct descendant of Wilson Jacobs,” said Purdy.
“Wilson and his wife, Louise,” echoed Chenier.
They were enslaved at Academy of the Sacred Heart’s convent in the 1800’s.
Wilson and Louise Jacobs, like so many other slaves, were traded to the religious order to pay off school tuition.
“We welcome you to the place that was the home of your ancestors, though not by their own choice,” said Provincial Sheila Hammond at the opening ceremony.
Now, the Academy is honoring them and shedding light on the school’s involvement in the slave trade, something Purdy and Chenier say they’re thankful for.
“I’m so happy to know that the sisters here are honoring our ancestors and such a painful past. But to realize it wasn’t the best decision and to recognize that is a good thing,” said Chenier.
“You know people want to erase slavery. It happened, let’s face it. It’s not a pretty mark on our country, but it happened. And descendants of slaves are around, they’ve contributed to a lot– look at this building they built this. But the church I’m grateful for them for stepping forward and honoring them,” echoed Purdy.
Because the Sacred Heart nuns kept good records, Purdy, Chenier and other descendents of slaves, are able to track their own family history, something many others cannot do.
“One thing that we as Americans of African descent do not have, we don’t have a complete line. There’s a break in our genealogy, there’s a break in our lives. We can’t trace that uniqueness,” said Purdy, sharing his frustration. “[We] can make it back to first generations of freed slaves, but they didn’t keep whole names, they didn’t keep– they were listed as property.”
“It’s like solving a puzzle, it’s like connecting to your family from long ago. That’s an important thing to do,” said Chenier with a smile.