Rereading the news headline, “Georgetown Apologizes, Renames Halls After Slaves,” I must admit that my brain felt bruised with numb surprise. The story that followed those six words shredded my view of the university with which I have had an active relationship for nearly five decades and effectively deconstructed my self-image.
As an undergraduate history major, I thought I had a good command of the political, economic and social issues associated with America’s “peculiar institution.” I was familiar with the compromises of the Constitutional Convention: Slaves were defined as three-fifths of a person, and Henry Clay‘s Missouri Compromise expanded the Union by adding equal numbers of slave-owning and “free” states. I knew about the Free Soil Party, which sought to block the introduction of slavery into the western states, and I knew about Bleeding Kansas; Harpers Ferry, W.Va., was only a daytrip from Washington, D.C.
When it came to Georgetown, I had the same bloodlessly academic appreciation of the impact slavery and the Civil War had on U.S. history. In Old North, I saw the servant quarters provided for slaves who accompanied students from southern states, but I thought of them as little more than architectural and historical artifacts of a remote and abstracted era. I accepted the romanticized — and sanitized — portrayal of the university’s efforts to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” including the decision to make blue and gray the official school colors.
I also did not question my status as a beneficiary of slavery: My family members were not slaveholders, so I didn’t derive any benefits. As a middle-class student from the New York City metropolitan area, I could easily divorce myself from any culpability. A child of the ’60s, I was smug in my self-righteous judgments of the Sheriff Clarks of the South. Civil rights were a punitive instrument to be deservedly inflicted on the descendants of Confederates who continued to oppress the descendants of slaves.
What I didn’t recognize until confronted with that headline was that, in a perverse twist of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, I knew everything and understood nothing.
The continued existence of my beloved Georgetown was rooted in the suffering of people held in bondage as human chattel. The buildings where I received my liberal education were constructed by forced labor. The reconciliation and reintegration embodied in the school colors were for those left to study the Civil War — not for those whose enslavement was the fundamental cause of it.
I am now confronted with the ugly truth that my comfortable life — and the institution that advanced it — is predicated on slavery. However, I am heartened that my alma mater has not shied away from the truth. It shone a bright light on a dark chapter in its history in an honest attempt at atonement — and, perhaps, redemption.
What makes Georgetown a great university is not that it has an unblemished record.
Rather, “Swift Potomac’s Lovely Daughter” derives greatness from her ability to recognize, acknowledge and embrace past mistakes so as to employ them as vehicles for learning and growth.
Georgetown is still great precisely because of its courage to apologize for past errors and celebrate the diversity of all who contributed to the institution — even those who labored and suffered in obscurity.
The humility of these actions is a powerful rebuke of simplistic and chauvinistic rhetoric that seeks to depict our less fortunate brothers and sisters as unworthy “losers” who can be treated as little more than commodities.
Georgetown’s humility is exemplified by the powerful symbolism of rechristening buildings named after individuals complicit in the slave trade, whatever their motivations. Even more concrete is the university’s decision to provide the descendants of those who built Georgetown with the same educational opportunity that I received. They should benefit from the efforts of their ancestors, just as I did. In a more just world, the first of these students would have been my classmates.
This is as good an exemplar of the Judeo-Christian spirituality that marks our school as any I could cite. In this teachable moment, those of us in the Hilltop family have an opportunity to rise above our all-too-human frailties and gain wisdom.
After more than four decades, Georgetown continues to provide me a path to becoming a better person by demonstrating how to respond to a past once buried under a cloak of ignorance.
Raymond W. Dillon Jr. graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. A Hoya Looks Back runs online every other Tuesday.