Feature Photograph: Maya Eaglin at the St. Landry Parish Courthouse in Opelousas on Wednesday. (All photographs by Bobby Ardoin.)
The last name of a young slave girl sold and relocated to a Louisiana sugar plantation nearly 175 years ago has led a young New York-based digital news reporter to embrace and trace multiple generations of her own ancestral history.
Maya Eaglin, whose father attended Carter Woodson High School in Lawtell, spent much of late Wednesday afternoon wandering among stacks of genealogical records inside the parish Courthouse basement and exploring the lives of long ago family members that she has now realized helped create the complex history of St. Landry race relations.
Her personal experience with the help of parish archivist Alex Lee has become both a journey of self-discovery and work-related documentary that Eaglin plans to edit and eventually distribute for viewing on various NBC digital platforms which have employed her for the past several years.
Eaglin, 25, who grew up in Maryland, said she became intrigued as she researched her 2022 award-winning NBC story that featured the Georgetown University sale of 272 slaves who were bought and then sent elsewhere as part of a financial transaction that allowed the institution to escape impending foreclosure in 1838.
In 2017 Georgetown officials apologized for their role in allowing the university to benefit from the slave sales. At the same time the university also acknowledged creating a charitable foundation for the families of those affected by the sales in order to create racial healing.
As she examined the names of the individuals whose lives were suddenly uprooted by wanton selling of humans, Eaglin said she noticed the name of one slave – Harriet Eaglin – a six-year-old who had no choice in determining her fate.
“I saw the name of one slave whose last name was Eaglin and that got my curiosity. At that point that story I was doing became personal and so relevant. I knew then that I needed some questions of my own answered about myself. What I have found out has been an incredible experience,” Eaglin said as she waited for her camera man to arrange another interview location for interviews with Lee and Clerk of Court Charles Jagneaux.
During her interviews with Lee, Eaglin asked questions about her own personal history, as well as investigating the nature of parish race relations throughout the last four decades.
Perhaps appropriately Eaglin was accompanied by her father James Eaglin and several other family members who watched her conduct the filming segments on the bottom floor of the Courthouse.
Much of the filming involved Lee, a genealogist, whose research into Eaglin’s history also indicates that he is probably related to her through a series of interconnected St. Landry families who were once both slaves and free people of color.
Lee said that since some of his own Guillory family members are intertwined in each of their histories, he already had much of Eaglin’s inquiries about her own ancestors already answered.
Genealogical information that has been made available through church records and in the St. Landry Courthouse records indicate that Eaglin is deeply tied to the Eaglin and Guillory families, Lee said during one of two film sessions.
However complicating the process that affects Eaglin’s history are other family relationships that involve the Donatto and Estorge families, according to Lee.
Lee thinks that Eaglin should probably consider herself a Creole that is someone whose family history is a blend of Black, White, French, Spanish and Native American influences.
Documents seem to additionally show that during the antebellum period preceding the Civil War their family members Lee said, at one time were slaves, while at other times their ancestors also owned plantations and slaves.
Complicating the peculiar history of St. Landry race relations is there were also whites who worked as slaves on Black-owned plantations, added Lee.
Lee said he has been able to accurately trace Eaglin’s family roots and others in St. Landry to Balthazar Martel who emigrated from the island of St. Domingue to the Bellevue area, where he became a prominent farmer who owned property.
The early members of the Eaglin family Lee said, were also land owners as was the Guillory family, whose prevalent descendants also seem embedded in parish history.
“I have a saying that once a Guillory always a Guillory. What I love about the Guillory family is they have stuck together and helped each other, especially during the Civil War when they tended to band together to prevent their land from being taken away,” Lee added.
Martin Donatto, who owned thousands of acres in St. Landry, was in some ways also potentially connected to Eaglin, Lee said.
“Donatto was able to do many things that persons of color were unable to do. (Donatto) was able to liberate many of his slaves in addition to emancipating himself. He also freed a lot of relatives who were slaves,” Lee pointed out.
Eaglin said the research that she has uncovered about her own past and the racial composition roots of St. Landry have led to a deeper understanding about her genealogical makeup.
“This has been an unexpected journey for me. (Lee) has told me mostly of what I came here to find out. I think most of the questions that I had before coming here have been answered,” said Eaglin.