LSU history professor Jonathan Earle knows that most students take a course and soon forget it. But if they're lucky, he says, they'll attend a class so thought-provoking it continues to resonate with them through adulthood.
He’s teaching one such course for an honors class this semester, focused on a piece of local history that attracted national headlines last year — Georgetown University's 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people to save the prestigious university from mounting debts.
"There was a conference we were at last summer where we talked a lot about universities and slavery. The Georgetown story was big," said Earle, who also serves as the dean of the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College at LSU. "I started thinking in my head about a class I'd be able to teach here."
Earle's idea showed up in the university's course offerings for the spring semester as "272 Slaves: Discovering Louisiana's (And Georgetown's) Past."
With the honors course, Earle is challenging students to confront topics of slavery, racism and race in America with a special focus on the descendants of the Georgetown slaves, most of whom were sold to plantations in Iberville and Ascension parishes.
The tale of Georgetown University's 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people to Louisiana plantation…
Zoe Williamson, a freshman political communications major from St. Francisville, took an immediate interest in the course. Her prior knowledge of the Georgetown sale came from reading a few headlines.
And before taking Earle's class, she had views of the antebellum South that were shaped by the culture she grew up in, where stately plantation homes are tourist attractions.
"They really didn't teach it in my school — they didn't want to offend people," Williamson, who is white, said of the reality of slave life on the plantations. "I grew up really surrounded by the white side of slavery. So when I saw this class was being offered, I jumped at the opportunity."
Sophomore RaeDiance Fuller, a biological engineering major from Baton Rouge, saw Earle's class as an opportunity to educate herself as well but for entirely different reasons.
"I was really antagonistic about race in high school because I felt my high school really tried to cover up race," said Fuller, who is black. "We're learning about the systems of oppression that are in place — something everyone should have as common knowledge."
Fuller said people at her school didn’t understand where she was coming from when they had discussions about race and, "I didn't have the formal background to educate them on why that was an issue."
Earle designed the curriculum of LSU's Georgetown course around weekly readings and scholarly pieces offering keen, and often uncomfortable, perspectives into the topic of slavery.
The Georgetown sale gained national prominence after The New York Times tracked down and interviewed scores of descendants in a series of articles published last spring. Those articles sparked national debates about the ripple effects slavery had on black families and the nation's economy. The media attention also revealed the unexpected roles religious and educational institutions had in the slave trade.
"I guess I never really just put two and two together — that slavery and these old universities existed and that's the reason they're so prestigious and great," said Shaya Khorsandi, a freshman biology and business major from Lafayette.
Khorsandi added that learning how universities used slavery to maintain or achieve their wealth and prestige gives him insight into some of the racial inequalities that still exist today.
Taylor Stirling, a freshman business management major and a Catholic, said the church's moral debate over slavery appealed most to him with respect to what he’s learning in Earle’s class.
"It's interesting that the Catholics of that time were having similar discussions as we are having now," said Stirling, who is a white.
The students said many of their in-class discussions have led to tense debates with their friends and family outside the classroom. But, they said, the historical perspective they’ve gained from taking the class has helped them to better argue their point of view.
Earle's students have even been a part of Skype meetings with a parallel class from Georgetown University. And they’ve heard lectures from occasional guest speakers, like Maxine Crump, one of the first descendants The New York Times interviewed for its pieces. Crump's ancestors were sold to a plantation in Maringouin, the quaint Iberville Parish town where she grew up.
Last week, Earle's students got the chance to meet with several students and faculty members from Georgetown who spent their spring break in Louisiana. Together with the LSU students, the group toured a few local plantations and attended a panel discussion at Southern University on cultural heritage from the perspective of Jessica Tilson, another descendant who was featured in one of several articles The Advocate published about the Georgetown sale.
Growing up in tiny Maringouin, Jessica Tilson often heard that everyone in town was somehow …
Students aren't required to take standard tests in the class. Earle has instead mandated they write four papers and maintain journals they must update on a weekly basis.
The class instruction is leading up to comprehensive oral projects the students must submit for class credit. The oral project involves intense research and interviews with descendants of the Georgetown slave sale.
"We're creating a primary resource with oral history," said Jennifer Cramer, director of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History with the LSU library.
Cramer is co-teaching the class with Earle.
"We're trying to get them to create a primary resource that will stand the test of time, be credible, be valid; so that takes a lot of hands on," Cramer said. "These oral histories will be processed and available to researchers everywhere throughout LSU libraries."
The students recently began work on their oral projects and are still in the process of searching for descendants willing to share their stories.
Georgetown University is making similar efforts to digitally memorialize the stories of descendants in oral projects.
Some black students from Louisiana could be in line for preferential admission to Georgetown…
"I don't think anyone expects white people to feel guilty," said Jones, a junior math major from Connecticut, who is black. "I just want people to realize they are still benefiting from that system, to know a lot of what they have to be thankful for today is because our ancestors didn't have anything."
Editor's note: This story was changed March 13, 2017, to correct the spelling of Taylor Stirling's name.