Georgetown University student activists have renewed their effort to implement a reconciliation fee for descendants of the GU272 as the university commemorated its first official Juneteenth observance.
University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) officially designated June 19 a university holiday amid ongoing protests against racial injustice and a national reckoning about racism.
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers informed more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas of their emancipation. The date marks the official end of enslavement in the United States more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The holiday was originally created by freed people in Texas in 1866 and is now officially recognized by 47 states, though it has yet to be established as a national holiday.
Georgetown played an active role in the enslavement and exploitation of Black people. On June 19, 1838 — exactly 182 years before the university officially recognized Juneteenth — Jesuits from the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus sold 272 enslaved people, referred to as the GU272, to plantations in Louisiana to financially sustain the university.
“In honoring this day, we honor the millions of African people who were dehumanized and lost their lives during enslavement,” DeGioia wrote in a universitywide email. “We recognize the incalculable toll of the institution of enslavement of people of African descent all over the world. We celebrate the idea of freedom — and all those who fought against enslavement to achieve it.”
In 2019, more than two-thirds of Georgetown students voted to establish a semesterly reconciliation fee to benefit descendants of the 272 people trafficked by the university. The GU272 Advocacy Team, a student group dedicated to raising awareness about Georgetown’s role in slavery, spearheaded the referendum effort.
After months of inaction, administrators decided against implementing the fee, much to students’ dismay. Instead, the university announced a slate of educational and research initiatives to benefit GU272 descendants.
On June 19, 2020, student organizers launched the Students for GU272+ campaign on Instagram in an effort to compel administrators to implement the reconciliation fee and a slate of other policies to support Black Georgetown students.
The university’s alternate GU272 initiatives fail to reflect the student body’s aspirations and disrespect Black voices, according to Shepard Thomas (COL ’20), a descendant and student organizer for the GU272+ campaign.
“We as students will not stand to the side as our university’s administrators refuse to support the needs of our black students on campus,” Thomas wrote in a statement shared with The Hoya. “The GU272 referendum is an example of student action that needs to be respected and accepted by the university. Proposing anything in place of the original referendum is unacceptable. Therefore, President DeGioia’s voluntary fund proposal is completely against the student body’s two-thirds majority vote and inherently oppressive to the creativity, ideas, and votes of Black students.”
To commemorate Juneteenth, the university prepared a set of resources for students and faculty, including educational videos and literature, access to relevant organizations, and video messages from Black administrators, faculty and descendants of the GU272 on the importance of the holiday.
The university’s Juneteenth recognition rings hollow given the administration’s insufficient action on slavery reparations, Thomas added.
“I will not acquiesce if the University refuses to properly address and commit to the needs of our black students,” Thomas wrote. “For a school to be so willing to celebrate the liberation of enslaved people in the United States on June 19th, 1865, it is shameful that they refuse to fully accept the reality that they exist at the expense of more than 272 enslaved people that they benefited from 27 years prior on June 19th, 1838.”
The university’s recognition of Juneteenth is a shallow effort unless it is followed up by concrete steps to better support Black students on campus, according to Makayla Jeffries (COL ’23), a member of the Black Leadership Forum and organizer of the #GeorgetownDoesntCare campaign.
“It’s cool to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, it’s important to remember and celebrate the liberation of black people from slavery,” Jeffries wrote in an email to The Hoya. “But it means nothing if Georgetown doesn’t participate in any sort of justice for the descendants of the slaves that built the university, it means nothing when Georgetown is actively oppressing its black students, it means nothing when Georgetown ignores the many black activists and organizers who sacrifice so much to push for change that this administration won’t take action on.”
In February, the Black Survivors Coalition held sit-ins outside the president’s office in Healy Hall, protesting inadequate university accommodations and support for Black women and nonbinary survivors of sexual assault.
Jeffries expressed skepticism about the university’s willingness to commit to policy proposals made by and for Black students.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s anything other than a performance,” Jeffries wrote. “What did that announcement do actually? Did that make my life at Georgetown as a first-gen low-income black student better? Did it make any black student’s life better? Or did it just make this university’s administration and white population feel better?”
The Georgetown University Student Association Senate passed a resolution at their meeting June 21 calling on the university to implement the reconciliation fee.
“If we truly want to honor the spirit of Juneteenth, which came on the 27th anniversary of that sale, if we want to live up to our Jesuit values as a Community in Diversity, if we want to deliver restorative justice, we must honor the vision of the GU272 Referendum and we must commit to a greater spirit of anti-racism,” GUSA Senator Eric Bazail-Eimil (SFS ’23), who introduced the legislation, said during the meeting.
The GU272+ Advocacy Team drafted a pre-written email template addressed to the Board of Directors and university administration Wednesday ahead of the Board’s next meeting.
“As Georgetown’s Board of Directors and the administrators of this university, you have the power to meaningfully engage with our school’s legacy of slavery by honoring the student vote to implement the referendum, as well as making tangible steps to allow the rest of the university community [to] act toward reparative justice,” the email reads.
The email demands that administrators and the board honor the specific steps outlined in the referendum, including the creation of a commission to develop a reparations plan for the descendants of the GU272 and a plan to address continued racism at Georgetown.
“In the end, the student body and I will be on the right side of history,” Thomas wrote. “It’s time for Georgetown University to choose their position.”
This article was updated to include relevant details about student government efforts.