On April 11, the Georgetown University undergraduate student body overwhelmingly voted “yes” to the referendum, establishing a board of trustees to “directly better the lives of the descendants of the GU272,” the 272 enslaved people sold by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 to financially sustain the university. Students would pay a semesterly fee of $27.20, which would then be collected and distributed throughout the community of the descendants of the GU272. Shamefully, I was initially against this idea, seeing no benefit in its passage, and I even worked to ensure its defeat. However, on the nights leading up to the vote, I had a change of heart and mind and decided that the referendum had not only earned my vote, but required it.
As a conservative, there is an ideological case to be made against reparations in general. On the federal level, large government programs, often proposed by liberals, rarely accomplish their goal and often succumb to unforeseen consequences.
My original fear was that this reconciliation fee would eventually go awry and fail to help those whom it was designed to aid from the beginning. Georgetown has far fewer resources than the federal government, and if the government could not amend this centuries-old wound of slavery, how was Georgetown supposed to? The difference, as I would soon learn, is that this fund is not and should not be considered reparations.
We the students voted “yes” to a reconciliation fee whose charter explicitly details the form and function of the proposed GU272 reconciliation board of trustees. I was particularly struck by the potential projects discussed in the charter. The initiatives, ranging from “[providing] medical care” to “[supplementing] the education” of the descendant community struck me as necessary and worthy of students’ endorsement. This referendum is a genuine grassroots, bottom-up movement to try and reconcile with the university’s past of slavery.
Furthermore, I opposed the referendum based on moral beliefs. Why should I, an African American student myself, pay for the sins committed by the university centuries before my time here on the Hilltop? When I asked this question at the Georgetown University Student Association-sponsored town hall event, I received several answers from those on the panel, but when Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a descendant of the GU272, stood up to speak, the room went silent.
It was then that she gave me a gift: the gift of understanding, of perspective, of recognizing what is right. As she addressed the crowd, I felt as if she was speaking directly to me when she said that the descendants of the GU272 are as much a part of Georgetown as are we, the students, ourselves. She spoke about how we have a moral obligation to try to reconcile our past history and that we owe a debt to those sold so many years ago, as they are the reason that we can call the Hilltop our home today. As beneficiaries of this university — regardless of political leanings, race or gender — we have a responsibility to “better the lives of the descendants of the GU272,” as they had, against their will, done for us. As a conservative African American student at Georgetown, I was no exception.
I now recognize my initial opposition was ill-founded and part of the overall problem. If we hope to address the issue of reconciliation the right way, we must all be a part of the solution. The first step in that solution can be recognized by holding the university accountable, as although the referendum has passed, more work is left to do. We must ensure the administration does not drag its feet on this issue and work towards realizing the ideas espoused in the charter. We must ensure the university begins to establish GU272 reconciliation board of trustees and carry out the rest of the proposals to which students voted “yes.” After all, the referendum wasn’t just an idea, or just a charter, or even just a plan. The GU272 referendum and its passage was the first step toward justice for those people wronged so many years ago.
We have the opportunity, as a community, to set an example nationwide on how to deal with the issue of reconciliation. I hope that all Hoyas will join me and many others in ensuring that the GU272 reconciliation board of trustees is erected and the proposals advocated for in the charter come to fruition. We must not tire, we must hold University President John J. DeGioia and the administration accountable, and we must carry out our duty and continue on the path for justice.
Javon A. Price is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.