She confronted the church’s role in slavery—and reconciled her faith

After this Catholic’s discovery about the past, she spoke truth to power and faith.
Peace & Justice

In 2016 news broke that in 1838 Jesuits from Maryland sold nearly 300 slaves to help pay off debts for Georgetown University (then Georgetown College). While the revelation shocked the Georgetown and wider Catholic communities, Dr. Onita Estes-Hicks, a cradle Catholic from New Orleans and beloved former professor from the State University of New York (SUNY), was not fazed. She had known about the slave sale for more than a decade.

Nace and Biby Butler and their 12 children, all sold in 1838 by the Jesuits, were Estes-Hicks’ paternal ancestors. 

Estes-Hicks grew up as one of eight children in a devoted interfaith family, her father a practicing Catholic and her mother from a Baptist tradition. Her family was very involved in their local Catholic parish and parochial school, St. Monica. Her father was a dedicated member of the Knights of Peter Claver, an organization founded for black Catholic men, who could not join the then all-white Knights of Columbus.

“It was small,” Estes-Hicks speaks of her childhood parish. “There was a great deal of mutual support, a kind of pooling of resources. It was a very special parish, where we all felt connected to each other and to other black Catholic churches and schools in the New Orleans area.” 


A lifelong lover of Victorian literature, Estes-Hicks attended Columbia University in New York City for her undergraduate education and stayed to earn three additional degrees—including her Ph.D.—in English. “I think I was the first student to do graduate work in African American literature at Columbia,” she says. “As a matter of fact, for my Ph.D. orals, they had to bring someone up from Harvard because there was no one on the faculty at Columbia to do itIn 1971 Estes-Hicks began working at Old Westbury, a branch of SUNY, where she would go on to teach for 35 years. Old Westbury was initially founded as an alternative, experimental university for students returning from the Peace Corps who were unhappy with traditional education. Continuing her trailblazing spirit, Estes-Hicks helped implement SUNY’s first multicultural English degree as well as its first mandated courses on racism and sexism. 

“Much of this stuff I did because experimentation was in the air,” she says. “I didn’t realize until I retired: ‘My God, I did all of those things on my own.’ ”


“My religion was very important to me because, during the years I was at SUNY, it was very hectic,” she says. “We had a number of issues there, and it was fortunate for me that there was a Catholic church right across from my campus. Frequently, when things got too hot, I would duck in there and get some consolation.” 

“I really love the Catholic Church, its origins, and its rituals,” she says. “There were periods in my life when I didn’t go to church as much as I should have, but I’ve always remained a Catholic. It’s never occurred to me that I was anything else.” 

Having such admiration for the church and devotion to her faith made discovering her family’s complicated Catholic history all the more difficult. While preparing for a family reunion in 2004, Estes-Hicks and her niece began researching how their family landed in New Orleans as Catholics. It was then that she came across the troubling information that not only were her ancestors brought to New Orleans as slaves, but they had been sold by Father Thomas Mulledy, a prominent Jesuit from Maryland and a former president of Georgetown. 

Learning that her relatives had been enslaved by Catholic priests “generated a great deal of dissonance, a sense of betrayal, and a lot of conflict,” Estes-Hicks says. 


This information directly conflicted with the Catholic Church in which Estes-Hicks had grown up. “I felt the love the parishioners had for one another,” she says. “I loved the nuns. The nuns loved us. My father was very, very close to the priests. They were in and out of our home all the time.”

Despite this deep sense of betrayal and confusion, “we were still Catholics. I never had any doubt about that,” she says. “Even when I’ve been on the outs with the Catholic Church, I’ve never been on the outs with the Catholic religion.”

In certain respects, learning about the 1838 Georgetown slave sale uncovered some incredible ties to Catholicism for Estes-Hicks and her family. For example, Nace Butler, one of their ancestors who had been part of the sale, was named after St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. Estes-Hicks’ father was also named Nace, a name they have carried in their family as either a first or middle name 11 different times. 


Estes-Hicks and her family realized that reconciling the church they knew with the troubling information they had learned was too difficult on their own, so they turned to Georgetown University to help them sort out their family history.


In 2016, 44 members of the family made a pilgrimage to the university. There they saw the plantation their ancestors had worked at in Maryland as well as the chapel where they worshipped. They attended a reception with the university president, participated in an audio-visual presentation in the library, and viewed a plethora of documents from the Georgetown archives regarding their family.  

The Georgetown faculty and administration helped “piece together a path that none of us imagined and none of us wanted to believe but was there,” Estes-Hicks says. Still, the Jesuits, she says, have “done very little.”


In addition to their pilgrimage to Georgetown, Estes-Hicks created a family association called Descendants Ascending to help pass on information to younger members of her family as they continue learning more about their history. Last year on the feast day of St. Ignatius, they celebrated the first “All Our Naces” Mass in honor of their ancestors. They have their sights on another pilgrimage next year—this time to visit Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, in Rome.

Amidst all the unrest the 1838 slave sale has caused her family, Estes-Hicks remains hopeful. 

“I think this whole discovery of the Catholic Church’s involvement in historical slavery has opened up a whole new level of interest and activity on the part of black Catholics who are struggling to come to grips with what it means to be black and Catholic and discover that we were enslaved by the Catholics,” she says. “I see a tremendous possibility for reconciliation based on the fact that so much truth is coming out about our own past. That’s what I’m resting on right now.”

This article also appears in the March 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 3, pages 45–46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Courtesy of Georgetown University