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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

‘Race, Power and Justice at GU’ Pilot Class Finishes, Broadens Perspectives on Diverse Issues

Lauren Tao | This semester, the university held a pilot version of the class “Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown,” which every Georgetown University freshman will take starting in Fall 2024 to introduce them to the GU272+ and ongoing issues of justice.

Starting in Fall 2024, every Georgetown University first-year will take a one-credit course titled “Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown,” which will introduce them to the GU272+ — the 314 enslaved people whom the Maryland Jesuits sold in 1838 to finance the continued operations of a near-bankrupt university — as well as global justice efforts and ongoing issues of race and power.

This semester, the university held a pilot version of the class, which finished Feb. 29. Adam Rothman, a professor in the history department and the director of Georgetown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, which supports new developments on the history of slavery, leads the class, which discusses the university’s history of enslavement and pressing justice issues.

Rothman said the pilot course, which included group events like panel discussions and film screenings, has engaged students with issues of racial justice, making connections across the university.

“I was really happy that we were able to connect the academic side of Georgetown with some of what’s going on outside the classroom because a lot of the folks we talked to in those sessions were not regular faculty — they’re coming from different programs around the university,” Rothman told The Hoya.

The pilot class was open to all undergraduates and included 45 students.

Rotham said he wants the “Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown” course to allow all Georgetown students to learn about and examine questions of justice at the university.

“I want it to be a kind of signature Georgetown experience for students,” Rothman said.

“My hope is that, even though there are certain grooves that each week will follow, there’ll be a shifting set of experiences and conversations,” Rothman added. “So it’ll never be the same class from session to session, even though the basic foundations of the class stay the same.”

Conversations About Racial Justice at Georgetown Grow 

Advocacy over racial justice at Georgetown took place in the mid-2010s after high-profile police killings of Black men attracted student interest to anti-racism efforts and a simultaneous series of columns in The Hoya brought the university’s history of enslavement to light, according to Bernie Cook, the founding director of the film and media studies program at Georgetown. 

In 2014, Matthew Quallen (SFS ’16), a columnist for The Hoya, detailed the Jesuits’ 1838 sale, calling out the society’s involvement in the slave trade and arguing for the renaming of Mulledy Hall, a residence hall holding the name of former university President Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., an architect of the sale. 

“Matthew Quallen, who published the column under the heading Hoya Historian, was the one who took the archival material and loaded it up in a fresh and compelling way, really a sort of morally insistent way, and so Matthew’s columns in The Hoya were one of the factors that prompted alumni to ask questions,” Cook said. 

Activism also extended beyond issues of Georgetown’s history of enslavement, Cook said. In one 2015 event, Georgetown students protested in Red Square, holding hands in a circle to call for a strengthening of Georgetown’s diversity requirement, which the university first implemented in 2010.

“There was a lot of student activism around race and power, and it wasn’t specifically directed toward Georgetown’s history with slave holding,” Cook said. “It was sort of like dominoes falling here.” 

Cook has been in conversation with the GU272+ descendant community and launched a documentary series called Since We Last Met” in 2016 to share descendants’ stories. 

Following this activism, University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) created the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, a group he charged with establishing an official administrative dialogue about Georgetown’s history of enslavement on campus, connecting with the descendant community and suggesting ways to memorialize the GU272+ on campus, in 2015. 

The group launched its own historical findings, creating a new Georgetown Slavery Archive to collect historical materials on the university’s involvement in slavery in 2016

Rothman said the working group’s findings inspired him to get involved in the reconciliation process. Rothman began this experience working with the Georgetown Slavery Archive, and through that, met several GU272+ descendants.

“I started to get to know a lot of people in the descendant community and started working with them and learning from them, and that was amazing,” Rothman said. “That was a really gratifying experience for me and I learned a lot from it, and for me, it has been one of the best parts of this whole experience.”

From student activism and the working group findings came several policy changes to Georgetown’s campus — both related to the GU272+ and more broadly. For instance, in 2015, Georgetown first required students to take two engaging diversity courses: one domestic and one global. 

In 2016, DeGioia granted legacy status to any GU272+ descendant who applied to Georgetown — giving descendants preferential admissions, comparable to the children of faculty or alumni.

Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a GU272+ descendant, said she decided to apply to Georgetown aged 63 in 2017 largely because of the new legacy status policy. Beyond her connection to the GU272+, Colomb’s ancestors were indentured servants in Maryland during colonial times — part of a community of Black people existing since the Maryland colony was founded in 1632

Short-Colomb said before DeGioia’s announcement, she was not inclined to go to Georgetown.

“I was not particularly impressed or trusting because this was an institution connected to an institution that had enslaved and trafficked human beings for an extended period of time and then conveniently didn’t talk about it for a more extended period of time,” Short-Colomb said. 

In 2017, the university also renamed two buildings to remove the names of Jesuit priests who organized the 1838 sale. McSherry Hall, previously named for Fr. William McSherry, S.J., former university president, became Anne Marie Becraft Hall, after a Black nun who started a school for Black girls in Washington, D.C. Mulledy Hall, the student dormitory Quallen sought to rename, is now Isaac Hawkins Hall, after the person listed first on the document detailing the 1838 sale. 

Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown 

In 2020, the Engaging Diversity Revision Subcommittee, a subcommittee tasked with reevaluating the curriculum’s diversity requirement, began reviewing the existing diversity requirement and reworking it to make it more meaningful for students, according to Rothman. “Race, Power and Justice at GU” came out of this committee and will form one part of a reworked Pathways to Social Justice requirement, which will take effect beginning with the Class of 2027. 

Rothman said a common misconception about the “Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown” course is that it only focuses on Georgetown’s history of enslavement. Instead, he said, the course teaches students how to apply Georgetown’s history to larger questions about justice. 

“The goal of the course is to prepare students to have thoughtful and constructive conversations at Georgetown and beyond around these pressing issues of justice,” Rothman said.

Each week of the six-week pilot course was themed around a different component of justice related to Georgetown: Introduction to Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown; Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation at Georgetown; Georgetown and Its Neighbors; Global Georgetown; Challenging Inequalities; and Faith That Does Justice. 

The class met weekly, with activities including documentary screenings, visits from faculty panels and guest speakers like Short-Colomb; professor Marc Howard, who runs the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI); and Tyrone Walker and Colie “Shaka” Long, both formerly incarcerated men who work for PJI.

Short-Colomb, who was a guest speaker during the second week of the class, said it is important for students to understand the history of the institution that they spend four years attending. 

“Would we have a Georgetown today without enslavement and human trafficking? Probably,” Short-Colomb told The Hoya. “But it wouldn’t be what we have now.” 

Seven faculty members and students from all of Georgetown’s undergraduate schools — including those affiliated with the School of Foreign Service’s campus in Qatar (SFS-Q), who attended over Zoom — helped teach the course, meeting twice a week, which aimed to incorporate their different perspectives into discussions.

Edilma Yearwood, an associate professor and chair of the professional nursing practice academic department in the School of Nursing, said the course’s teachings about racial justice intersected with her own work on health equity and mental health nursing. 

“As a healthcare provider and academic, understanding the roles of race, power and justice in supporting or serving as a barrier to access to equitable health is foundational to our understanding of significant health inequities that exist here in the US,” Yearwood wrote to The Hoya. 

Yearwood said her own experiences and identities allow her to speak to the lived experiences of microaggressions. 

“As a Black woman, an immigrant, and someone who while navigating the education system as a student was either the only student of color or one of two in most of my classes, race has been a constant and palpable personal experience,” Yearwood wrote. “I think I bring authentic and credible experience to the conversation.”

Jeremy Koons, a philosophy professor at the Georgetown Qatar (GU-Q) campus who participated in the course this semester, said he decided to take part in the class because his teaching focuses on issues of structural injustice, which the new course addressed through lessons about the caste system in India and the recent affirmative action debates in the United States.

Koons said GU-Q students, who participated in the class over Zoom, brought a global set of experiences and perspectives to the classroom. 

“GU-Q has a very international student body, and I think that generated a number of unique perspectives,” Koons wrote. “Students were able to talk about how the issues discussed in the course (racism, casteism, etc.) manifest in their own cultural contexts.” 

“Most of our students come from countries that were formerly colonized,” Koons added. “So, for example, when we talk about reparations, that means something very different in the context of post-colonialism than it does in the context of US discussions of slavery and racial justice.” 

For Emma Brown (CAS ’27), the class provided an opportunity to learn from multiple perspectives on issues like reparations.

Georgetown PJI | PJI staff members joined a class session of “Race, Power and Justice at Georgetown” to speak to students about criminal justice.

“I can confidently say this was one of my favorite parts of the class as I truly feel that I was exposed to so many engaging perspectives, especially from the prof

essors that I may not have otherwise interacted with in my time in the College,” Brown wrote to The Hoya. 

Another student, Hannah Block (SFS ’27), said the class also allowed her to reflect on her privilege as a student at Georgetown.

“I thought taking Race, Power, and Justice at Georgetown as a freshman was interesting and important in allowing me to reflect on the privilege I have to be a student at this institution and broaden my perspectiveas I situate that privilege in the context of broader injustice historically and throughout the world,” Block wrote to The Hoya.

Looking Toward the Future

Despite this work, Rothman said, many students are unaware of Georgetown’s history with racial justice, describing Georgetown’s campus as “a landscape of historical memory” that students often do not think about.

Rothman said several of the most recognized spots on campus, such as Gaston Hall, the university’s largest auditorium, have ties to enslavement. 

Gaston Hall is named for William Gaston, the university’s first graduate, who was a major North Carolina slave owner and a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court involved in several key decisions related to slavery. Similarly, the John Carroll statue sitting at Georgetown’s front gates offers no description of the ways that the American Catholic Church, which Carroll led, was involved in slavery. 

Rothman said one of his goals in teaching “Race, Power and Justice at GU” is for people to always think about the full history of different spots on campus. 

“There’s nothing about that statue that would tell you that John Carroll stood at the top of this huge slaveholding Catholic complex,” Rothman said. 

According to Rothman, Georgetown also does not memorialize a 19th-century Catholic cemetery that lies underneath the Reiss Science Building and Arrupe Hall. This cemetery, which once belonged to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church of Georgetown, holds the now-unmarked graves of both free and enslaved people.

Students have also pushed for financial reparations to communities Georgetown has historically harmed. In 2019, a group of Georgetown students and descendants proposed charging all students a fee of $27.20 for every semester — reparations that would go toward the descendant community. 

Although the fee passed a student referendum with record turnout for a student election, the university administration scrapped it, instead deciding to pay $400,000 annually — a rough equivalent of the money that the student fee would raise — to projects supporting the GU272+. 

Yet organizers of the drive for the student fee believed having the money come from Georgetown students would hold symbolic power, according to Genevieve Grenier (MSB ’24), one of the leaders of Hoyas Advocating for Slavery Accountability, a student organization which seeks to memorialize the GU272+ and advocate on behalf of their more than 12,000 living descendants. 

“It upset a lot of the designers of the referendum because they did feel it was important that the money come from the students,” Grenier told The Hoya. 

For Short-Colomb, her family’s history at Georgetown has inspired her to participate in the dialogue about the racial justice on campus, including as a speaker in this new course.

“For the last six, seven years going on now, my relationship with Georgetown has been about ensuring that on Georgetown’s campus, there is cultural memory for students, for you, as an incoming first-year student, that you and your family and your extended community engage with this information and reality throughout your undergraduate career at Georgetown,” Short-Colomb said.

“I walk around and I’m like, ‘My God! Look at what my people did!’ Nobody else here did that,” Short-Colomb added. “I walk on the campus with more pride than any other person on Georgetown’s campus.”

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