Local woman hopes to inspire others with ancestry research
MARINGOUIN- For Jessica Tilson and many of the people in Maringouin, Louisiana, they have mostly lived in the small town for nearly 200 years, which sent Tilson on a mission to discover her roots.
“I wanted to know about my family,” she said. “I wanted to know who they were, why I behave the way I behave. Why was Maringouin such a close knit community? So I just took it upon myself to find them,” she continued.
Tilson is a descendant of some of the 272 enslaved people sold to Louisiana plantations in 1838 by Jesuit priests at Georgetown University. Without the sale, the school would have likely been forced to close due to mounting debts.
Tilson has spent the past two years preserving the memories of her ancestors, especially in the cemetery of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church.
She said, “I feel like a part of history, like most people won't have this opportunity that I have now.”
“I can actually explain certain enslaved people's lives. I can tell them where they came from. They were neighbors. I can tell who played with who. It's more than just a graveyard for me,” she added.
With the help of Judy Riffel, lead genealogist for the Georgetown slavery, memory, and reconciliation project, who has tracked more than 9000 descendants from the GU 272, Tilson was able to connect her family to the prestigious Catholic university.
Riffel said, “We had to figure out where they were all sent to before we could start tracing them and that was kind of difficult when we first started out to know where they were.”
Through that tracking, Tilson learned that her family's land has belonged to them for 120 years. Her great-great-great grandfather bought the land from the family that previously owned them, which is a fact she is proud to carry on.
“I knew I had great-great-great grandparents, but now I know your names and I know your story. I was excited because I was able to share with my grandfather his ancestors,” said Tilson.
With only a box left of what she's been researching because much of it was lost in the 2016 flood, Tilson said she hopes her family's story will inspire other African Americans to research their own ancestry.
“It's giving others motivation to go find out where they come from. Maybe I'm a descendant of Georgetown, but to go find out no, you're family built Harvard, Yale, the White House, the president's house, so to me it's amazing,” she said.