Georgetown University would have folded if not for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838. Today, the university must take extraordinary steps to grapple with its past.
The university was kept financially afloat by the 1838 sale of 272 slaves by Jesuits associated with the Maryland Province. In recent years, Georgetown has tried to make amends with its past through research, memorialization and other minor measures. To further address the university’s historical wrong, Georgetown has a duty to engage with the descendants of those slaves.
The university should build on the steps it has already taken by establishing a foundation guided by descendants and geared toward community and educational programs. This common-good method, rather than direct reparations, is Georgetown’s best opportunity to address systemic racial injustice in a long-term, ongoing manner. In addition, a foundation is the only feasible option to work toward reconciliation and engagement with communities that have suffered from Georgetown’s legacy of slavery.
Since assembling the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation in September 2015, Georgetown has taken important — if too often symbolic — steps to confront its historical relationship with slavery.
In September 2016, University President John J. DeGioia announced descendants of the Georgetown 272 would receive legacy status in admissions. Although the new admissions policy has helped bring three students to campus, other projects are still in the development phase. DeGioia also announced the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, which started with the goal to research and teach about slavery while engaging with descendants of the 272 enslaved people, along with plans for on-campus memorials to the GU 272.
On April 18, 2017, the university held a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” event in partnership with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the Society of Jesus in the United States. More than 100 descendants attended to observe the christening of Anne Marie Becraft Hall, named for the founder of one of the first schools for black girls in the Georgetown area, and Isaac Hawkins Hall, named after the first person to be listed on the record of the 1838 sale.
During the ceremony, DeGioia offered contrition to the descendants: “Slavery remains the original evil of our Republic — an evil that our University was complicit in … We lay this truth bare — in sorrowful apology and communal reckoning.”
These initial efforts show Georgetown is willing to apologize for the scars on its record and address them openly.
While Georgetown’s efforts toward reconciliation have been constructive, the university must act on the concerns of descendants about a lack of engagement in the decision-making process. Going forward, Georgetown must employ an approach informed by the past while looking toward the future: A foundation fulfills this demand.
Also in September 2016, a group of nearly 600 descendants of the 272 asked Georgetown to create a $1 billion charitable foundation to “promote reconciliations,” according to The Washington Post.
Joseph Stewart, a lead organizer of the group, expressed a desire to work with the university. “The foundation is our vision of an opportunity for [the descendants] to have a partnership with Georgetown University,” Stewart wrote.
Thus far, no other proposal does more to promote the marginalized voices of black Americans than a foundation guided by the descendants’ ideas and goals.
Georgetown should immediately begin organizing and fundraising for this foundation in conjunction with the Society of Jesus and other universities, with an eye toward guaranteeing descendants a prominent voice in determining how the money is used.
By coordinating with other institutions that have acknowledged their historic wrongdoings, Georgetown and the GU 272 will become national leaders in the pursuit of reconciliation.
Georgetown has already begun working alongside other educational institutions, including a Universities Studying Slavery framework of cooperation that coordinates interuniversity research on “historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities,” according to its website.
As the working group recommended in its summer 2016 report to DeGioia, a financial commitment must be included in Georgetown’s reconciliation efforts.
“While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of the enslaved people can never be repaid, we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the University,” the group wrote. Georgetown should follow this recommendation by directing money toward projects that benefit African-American communities.
Georgetown and other beneficiaries of the slave trade perpetuated the institutional discrimination that continues to harm black communities today.
For every $100 of wealth accumulated by white families, black families hold $5.04, according to The New York Times. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes reforms in sentencing policy, found black men are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated during their lives as white men. Schools with more white children are significantly more likely to offer advanced or AP courses than schools with mostly black children, according to the Brookings Institution.
The institutional disadvantage of being black in the United States, created by the institution of slavery and perpetuated by historical atrocities such as the 1838 sale of black people to furnish a university composed of white students, must be addressed to properly reconcile with the past.
A common-good foundation would be a long-term investment in the lives of descendants harmed by Georgetown’s legacy of slavery, as well as future generations disadvantaged by systemic racism. Georgetown is seeking a long-term partnership with a broad array of descendants, according to a university spokesperson; a descendant-led foundation would allow Georgetown to accomplish this goal.
The proposed foundation could focus on furnishing scholarships, restorative justice initiatives and job training programs in predominantly black communities like Maringouin, La. Fostering educational opportunities for African-American children should also be a priority for any forthcoming foundation. Of course, these are merely suggestions; specific goals must be discussed and determined by the descendants, in consultation with Georgetown and the Society of Jesus.
A group of 200 African-Americans descended from Isaac Hawkins has asked Georgetown to pay direct reparations.
While this editorial board recognizes these descendants’ belief that reconciliation is best pursued through financial reparations, we believe that promoting a foundation is not only the most effective option for Georgetown to help advance descendants, but also the most feasible means by which the university can pursue restitution. Offering financial reparations to descendants of slaves is simply not a feasible use of Georgetown’s finite resources.
The university should use its resources to establish and contribute to reconciliation programs that respond to deep, existing racial injustices present in American life, especially in those of descendants.
Furthermore, Georgetown’s efforts toward reconciliation should include a continued relationship between the Georgetown community and the descendants of the GU 272.
A charitable foundation with the active participation of descendants would be used as a “model for healing and redress in our nation,” as Stewart wrote. Making direct payments to descendants risks cutting off the conversation and limiting an opportunity for engagement to a one-time interaction — surely insufficient in any effort to heal the wounds Georgetown has inflicted.
As an editorial board without any African-American members, we recognize our perspective is only one of many to account for in this ongoing conversation. However, this editorial board sincerely hopes our shared perspective may catalyze a greater opportunity for a campuswide conversation on the nature of atonement and reconciliation.
Increased and continued incorporation of descendants’ voices is imperative to a productive conversation and process of healing. Georgetown can never fully reconcile with its past — the cost it caused the 272 slaves of 1838 and their descendants today to bear is far greater than can be described or imagined. However, by organizing, funding and leading a foundation dedicated to supporting descendants and African-American communities in the long term, Georgetown can take important and necessary steps toward rehabilitation.
Editorial board members Grace Laria (SFS ’19) and Emma Lux (COL ’18) dissented from this editorial and elected to write an opposing viewpoint, “Fulfill Direct Reparations Request.”