The names of 44 enslaved men, women and children appeared Sunday on a wall before the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge’s congregation as they met for morning services on the very property that was home to a Baton Rouge sugar cane plantation 160 years ago where the 44 slaves once worked.
Sam Fletcher. Phillis. Carroll. Isaac. Smart. Macon. Richard. Lewis. Little Easter.
The list went on, including their ages that ranged from infants and five-year-old children to a 65-year-old woman named Old Sarah.
Most did not have last names.
The names were found by Unitarian Church leaders who launched an effort to discover the history behind the land where their church now stands on Goodwood Boulevard, a task dubbed the Naming Project.
Property records revealed the land was once part of Cortana Plantation, a sugarcane farming operation where 44 slaves were forced to work in the 1850s.
Church ministers shared the discovery at Sunday morning services by projecting the names of the enslaved on the church’s wall and reading them aloud.
“These names are now forever in our memory,” said the Rev. Steve Crump. “They walked this ground, right where we worship today.”
Crump said the discovery would hopefully challenge his congregation and possibly other churches in the area to continue to wrestle with America’s history of slavery, which he said cannot be forgotten or brushed aside.
“It’s time to remember real human beings who labored and died, and were sold as part of an economic system of not only the south but the entire nation,” he said.
The Naming Project was inspired by Associate Minister Nathan Ryan’s visit to Whitney Plantation in Wallace, which has a wall with the names of enslaved people who worked on the property. The wall piqued Ryan’s curiosity as to whether his church grounds were ever home to a plantation with slaves.
To assist in his research, Ryan called on longtime church member Wade Adams, an attorney, who hired a title abstractor to find a condensed history of the ownership of the property where the Unitarian Church now stands.
The search revealed an original document in the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office sale book, which states that on Oct. 4, 1856, James A. McHatton acquired Cortana Plantation under foreclosure for $90,000 at a sheriff’s sale. Cortana encompassed the tract of land where the Unitarian Church now resides.
The document described the plantation property as 627 acres, including buildings, horses, oxen, mules, farming equipment and 44 slaves, with their names and ages.
“It’s very clear when you read this language that these people were property,” Adams said. “It was a legal fact.”
Discovering the document confirmed Ryan’s suspicions that the church grounds were once home to a plantation, he said, and finding the names of the enslaved people added a compelling piece to the puzzle.
“Something about re-humanizing people is powerful,” Ryan said.
Unitarian Church member JoAnn Fryling said for her the Naming Project solidifies the values of the church and its belief that everyone has worth and dignity.
“It verifies everything I believe about this church,” she said. “They stand up for the justice of all people. This is why I belong to this church.”
The Unitarian Church purchased the property on Goodwood Boulevard around 1960, Crump said. The church once had a location in downtown Baton Rouge, but members were booted out for holding integrated meetings in the early 1950s.
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, which has about 500 members, is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association and is known as a long-standing abolitionist church, Crump said.