In the words of the report commissioned last summer by Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, “Ultimately, reconciliation requires relationship.”
Since Georgetown publicly acknowledged its profit from an 1838 sale of 272 slaves to a Louisiana plantation, the university has promised to engage the descendants of the slaves in the reconciliation process. However, weeks shy of a planned spiritual ceremony April 18 to express remorse over the university’s slaveholding past, the GU 272 Alliance, composed of 100 descendants, hired legal representation to push for a greater voice in the university’s response to the sale.
Although senior university officials, including University President John J. DeGioia, have travelled to meet some of the living descendants of the enslaved over the past year, it is evident from the hiring of legal counsel that many feel their needs and interests were not fully represented within the reconciliation process. Most glaringly, not one of the descendants was given the opportunity to provide feedback before the report was released last September.
Without the input from descendants, some of the promises in the report, such as the establishment of an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown, would ring hollow in the mission to atone for the university’s troubled past. The editorial board believes that more than any apology, memorial or institute, these descendants are the most enduring testament to the humanity of the 272, and they need to be at the forefront of any decisions made about their ancestors’ legacies.
In fact, the hallmark of the university’s commitment to reconciliation — the decision to offer descendants preferential status in the admissions process, similar to the children of alumni — can only be meaningful if Georgetown extends its outreach to the community. This outreach would require more than just inviting interested descendants into these discussions, but also identifying individuals unaware of their roots to the school and alerting them to this opportunity.
Going forward, Georgetown must follow through on the principles outlined in the working group’s report to “be attentive to the interests of the descendants themselves, as well as respectful of the diversity of opinion and interest among them.” Already, the university has signaled its desire for collaboration in its meetings with descendants and genealogical research into their families’ history, but to pay more than just lip service to the process of reconciliation, the university needs to directly involve them in the decision-making process behind new initiatives, including developing scholarships, encouraging a new Working Group on Racial Justice and establishing new public monuments.
Above all, the interests of the descendants should take priority in the university’s efforts to promote justice in memorializing the 272. Maintaining this relationship between our two communities will prove vital in healing a shared history mired in tragedy.