Despite its promise to grapple with its ties to slavery, Georgetown University has fallen short in honoring the memory of enslaved people sold to benefit the university.
More than two years after the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation offered its comprehensive recommendations, Georgetown has failed to act on a crucial call to action despite student support and the means to do so: The university has not yet memorialized the GU272.
Georgetown must publicly and enduringly acknowledge its wrongdoing in benefitting from the 1838 sale of 272 enslaved people owned by the Maryland Society of Jesus. In continuing to atone for the sins of its ancestors, the university administration should construct a memorial on campus in a visible location, install plaques on the unmarked graves of enslaved people and continue to act on recommendations made by the working group.
These plans, outlined in the working group’s 2016 recommendations, would further Georgetown’s goal of ending nearly two centuries of anonymity of and neglect for people whom the university used as capital.
Georgetown has followed through on some working group recommendations, such as establishing legacy admissions for the enslaved peoples’ descendants, and begun work on others, including the engagement of the Georgetown community in larger discussions on the university’s legacy through panels and other events.
A resolution introduced last week in the Georgetown University Student Association senate called on the university to erect a memorial; the resolution received unanimous support in a Sunday vote. Georgetown must recognize this resolution as a demand to follow through on its promises.
University President John J. DeGioia has already committed to constructing a memorial. In a universitywide email sent Sept. 1, 2016, he wrote, “we will establish a living and evolving memorial to the enslaved people from whom Georgetown benefitted.”
While Georgetown has fulfilled some of the working group’s recommendations, this crucial measure has been left unaddressed. Further, progress the university has made has often required student activism.
In November 2015, DeGioia approved a separate recommendation from the working group to rename Mulledy Hall, which was named for University President Fr. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., who authorized the sale, and McSherry Hall, named for University President Fr. William McSherry, S.J., who served as Mulledy’s lawyer. Mulledy was renamed Isaac Hawkins Hall; McSherry was renamed Anne Marie Becraft Hall.
However, this decision was made only after student activists staged a sit-in outside DeGioia’s office the previous day, promising to continue daily sit-ins until administrators took action.
While student activism is an honorable means of holding the university accountable, it cannot be relied upon permanently. By the end of this year, all students attending Georgetown at the time of the sit-in will have left campus; the students who were part of the working group have already left.
Students have also attempted to install commemorative plaques on campus, although a lack of university support has led these plans to fizzle.
Justice for the descendants should not rest on mere hope that future generations of Georgetown students will fight with the same fervor that carried those who were here when they learned of the sale. Public memorialization of the GU272 would help address this potential blind spot.
This memorial must be placed in a visible and significant location. The GU272 are a foundational part of Georgetown’s history and must not be relegated to some corner of campus.
A memorial would not even require significant commitment from Georgetown: Fax Victor (COL ’19) has offered the services of his company, Light After Death, to design, build and fund the memorial.
Georgetown needs only minimal effort to follow through on this crucial recommendation but has delayed progress.
The university owes an irreconcilable debt to the enslaved people it stole from and to the descendants who still face consequences of Georgetown’s plunder. Establishing a public memorial in their honor, however, is a necessary and actionable step in moving toward justice.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and is chaired by the Opinion Editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.