Georgetown University would not exist today if the Maryland Society of Jesus had not sold 272 enslaved men and women in 1838 to financially sustain the university. And yet the university’s reconciliation with its historical connection to slavery is largely limited to legacy admissions preference for descendants and renamed buildings.
Frustrated by the university’s failure to adequately uplift descendants, the GU272 Advocacy Team worked with the Georgetown University Student Association to propose a bill in January 2019 that establishes a mandatory fee contributing to a reconciliation fund directly benefiting descendants of the GU272. (Full disclosure: Editorial Board Member Maya Moretta is a member of the team). Next Thursday, undergraduates will have the opportunity to vote on whether students should pay the fee.
Students cannot remain silent as the university fails to pursue justice. To truly reconcile with the Georgetown’s deeply rooted connection to slavery, students should vote yes on the referendum.
The referendum would levy a mandatory fee of $27.20 per semester, amounting to about $400,000 annually. The money — which would be controlled by a board made up of five descendants of the GU272 and five students appointed by the GUSA president — would be used to fund projects for descendant communities, including college scholarships, eye exams and internet access. At the end of each year, a report detailing projects would be released to the study body.
Though the GU272 sale occurred nearly two centuries ago, the legacy of slavery still has an incredibly strong impact on descendant communities. The average income in Maringouin, La. — the town close to where most slaves were sold in 1838 and where nearly 1,000 identified descendants of the GU272 live today — is only $36,518, approximately $21,000 lower than the national average. Additionally, Maringoun’s only high school closed in 2009 due to a lack of enrollment.
Georgetown was saved from bankruptcy by the sale of the GU272, an act that not only made the university complicit in the evils of slavery, but also perpetuated a system that would disadvantage descendants for centuries to come. This fund is not charity that should be given from generosity, but rather money owed to the community; as beneficiaries of the university, students have a responsibility to fulfill this commitment and vote yes.
Though University President John J. DeGioia — considered a leader among peer institutions in national efforts to reconcile with slavery — has acknowledged and apologized for the institution’s historical connection to slavery, none of the university’s reconciliation efforts thus far have pursued reparative justice.
While legacy advantage in admissions can be considered a form of reparative justice, this advantage is not enough to uplift descendant communities.
The renaming of buildings after Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft in 2017 was an important symbolic gesture, but the action has no direct benefit for descendants, many of whom live in communities pervaded by poverty largely as a consequence of the university’s actions.
Critics of the referendum have argued that the university should pay the price — that students have no responsibility for the 1838 sale of the GU272. Yet students cannot be separated from the university. By attending Georgetown, students benefit from a prestigious education that would not have been possible without the 1838 sale.
Moreover, students with financial need would not be disadvantaged by the referendum’s proposed $27.20 fee, as indicated by the financial aid office. A mandatory fee would not raise a student’s expected financial contribution. Because Georgetown meets the financial need of every student, this fee would be covered for financially disadvantaged students.
By voting yes on the referendum, students could also set a precedent for the nation. Reconciliation and reparative justice are being discussed by many universities, and the student body’s decision to pursue a reconciliation fund that would directly benefit descendants could set a model for the nation despite university inaction.
Though critics are concerned that student compensation for Georgetown’s failure to take ownership of its past could encourage complacency among the administration, the university often takes action only when compelled by student activists; in fact, the university did not even agree to rename buildings after Hawkins and Becraft until students staged daily sit-ins outside of DeGioia’s office in 2016.
Georgetown has spent years denying its debt to the descendants of the enslaved people who financially sustained it. The student body should know better than to follow in its shameful steps. Next Thursday, vote yes.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that nearly 4,000 descendants of the GU272 live in Maringouin, La. Almost 1,00o descendants live in Maringouin.
Additionally, an earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the closure of Maringouin’s high school to a lack of resources. The school closed due to lack of enrollment. This post has been updated.