GRAND COUTEAU, La. (AP) - Lake Charles native Dorson Purdy has accomplished what few African Americans can by tracing his lineage back to his five-time great-grandfather who was enslaved in the 19th century at the Convent of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Couteau.
The convent and the Religious of The Sacred Heart will host a ceremony on Sept. 23 to honor and memorialize the families and descendants, like Purdy, who lived their lives enslaved to the work of the convent.
The ceremony will include a religious blessing of the headstones that memorialize each family by name; a recognition of the enslaved names found in the convent's records called "We Speak Your Name;" a namemarking of the cabins that housed the enslaved families; and a formal dinner reception honoring the descendants, living and deceased. Purdy spoke of the Sacred Heart nuns who began organizing the event after uncovering records indicating the convent's ownership of slaves in the 1800s when the order oversaw the girl's school. "They're really laying it all out for this," he said. "This is their way of telling us, 'We apologize and we're going to honor these people.' It's a really beautiful ceremony they're planning."
Purdy's genealogical journey began when he searched for details about his maternal grandmother. He used Southwest Louisiana's Genealogical and Historical Library, www.ancestry.com and connections from genetic testing. He described the genealogical revelations as an "emotional roller coaster" that included moments of both "rage" and "compassion."
The convent's ownership of slaves came to light after the revelations of Georgetown University selling its slaves began to surface.
"When I found out about Georgetown, that threw me," Purdy said. "But when I found this out, it threw me for another loop because they were talking about the catechisms. Slavery and catechism just don't go together in my mind, yet alone in the same sentence."
After more research, Purdy said the records indicated that the slaves were used by planters as a form of cash to "pay" school tuition when they did not have the money.
"It didn't mean they went out and bought those slaves ... I want to believe they were much more compassionate," he said.
He said none of the convent's records indicate that slaves were ever sold away once they arrived.
Extensive record-keeping is what sets Purdy apart from most other African Americans who research their genealogy, said Joyce Sonnier, SWLA Genealogy Library associate.
"African Americans in general, we have the most difficult genealogy to trace because we are the only race to be torn from our families at certain points," she said.
Along with finding no records of sale, the convent's documentation of religious ceremonies for the enslaved families is what turned Purdy's rage into compassion. He said he understood that the nuns were engaging in what was a "normal way of life" at the time and yet tried to do so in the most honorable way.
"How many people kept records on slaves? And they kept good records - catechisms, baptisms, all of that," he said. "That's how we were able to find out who we are."
Sonnier agreed, saying African Americans often come to an impasse in their genealogy research because slaveholder records notate no specific identifying information for slaves beyond physical characteristics useful for cataloging "inventory."
When Purdy places flowers on the grave of his five-time great-grandfather, Wilson Jacobs, and his descendants, he plans to give a speech focused on unification and healing.
"There's a lot to be thankful for in this because I've always wanted to know," he said. "This doesn't complete me all the way back to Africa, but it completes me here."
Purdy said he "feels like a kid again" as he prepares to visit Grand Couteau.
"I'm so proud of us, and we should celebrate those slaves because we would not be here without them being so strong and surviving," he said. "And we're still surviving. We have strength in us, and we don't even realize where it comes from sometimes ... It comes from our ancestors."
"I wear this proudly," he said pointing to his brown skin. "Knowing who you are is your strength, and that was their strength. That's how they survived."
Information from: American Press, http://www.americanpress.com