Since the reopening of then-Mulledy Hall in 2015 called into question a past steeped with the horrors of the slave trade, Georgetown has struggled to reconcile its Jesuit values with the sale of 272 enslaved men, women and children to a plantation in Louisiana in 1838.
The legacy of the trade intractably links the history of the university, which used the $3.3 million in today’s dollars to pay off debts during times of financial duress, and the town of Maringouin, La., whose population of 1,100 contains 900 direct descendants of the Georgetown slaves.
The university can never truly amend the irreversible pain it inflicted on these individuals or hope to fully atone for its sins. But the grassroots efforts to commemorate the memory of those enslaved is a great opportunity for everyone in the Georgetown community to confront the dark history of the university.
One example of this effort is Georgetown students Ayodele Aruleba (COL ’17) and Milan Chang (COL ’17) launching the Tombstone Restoration Initiative to raise $1,200 within the next two months to restore the identifiable tombstones of some of the slaves at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Graveyard in Maringouin. The project is to start with Lucy Merrick, a slave sold at age 10, who lived until 1903, but had no direct descendants to tend to her gravesite.
At the heart of this project is an attempt to rectify the erasure of people like Merrick, who were robbed of their future and shipped to a new land at the height of the antebellum south. Yet in addition to humanizing the victims of Georgetown’s tortured past, the project also enhances the significance of the gesture by diffusing the responsibility for atonement to the entire community.
The Tombstone Restoration Initiative will raise the money by selling wristbands provided by the Georgetown Memory project — which helps identify the living descendants of the 272 slaves — for $2.72, which could potentially involve 500 people to reach the fundraising goal. Thus, rather than relegating the responsibility of memorial to the university, everyone in the Georgetown community — students, alumni and faculty — have the opportunity to commemorate those individuals who were sacrificed to finance the operations of the university.
Already, the university has made strides at the institutional level to make amends, including creating a committee last summer to establish a public memorial of the sale, offering admissions preference to the descendants of the 272 slaves and designing an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies to support researching and teaching a public history of the sale. The university also acquiesced to student demands to rename Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall — named after two former university presidents complicit in the trade — to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, signaling its commitment to upholding the memory of the slaves.
While these steps are commendable, particularly when compared to the fraught racial tensions that accompany similar ties to slavery at Yale University, Princeton University and the University of Missouri, these movements are incomplete if they do not force everyone at the intersection of the university to grapple with the community’s ongoing response to its history.
Aruleba and Chang’s project, then, is a welcome and particularly poignant change from other schools’ efforts – each $2.72 wristband serves as more than a contribution to the restoration of a grave, but as a reminder that behind the story there were 272 individuals whose lives were upended as a result of the sale.
This editorial board believes contributing to the project restores some of the dignity to the slaves by offering respect and humility as a means of reparation. While no amount of atonement can approximate the level of suffering inflicted by the sale, the involvement of students and alumni in the project helps restore the humanity to the 272 individuals intractable in the history of the university.