The Georgetown University Student Association senate began initial deliberations Tuesday on a referendum that would allow Georgetown students to vote on whether to establish a reconciliation contribution, a fee to collect money for a charitable fund to benefit descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold by the Maryland Society of Jesus in 1838, commonly known as the GU272.
The GUSA senate ways and means committee met Tuesday night to discuss the referendum, which would establish a financial contribution for descendants of the GU272, after GUSA senator Sam Appel (COL ’20) introduced a bill titled the “Act of Referendum to Establish a New GU272 Legacy and Create the Reconciliation Contribution.”
The bill proposed the reconciliation contribution appear as a semesterly fee as part of tuition. However, senators and members of the GU272 Advocacy Team, a group of students who advocate on campus for descendants, have yet to finalize the exact details of the possible fund, according to GU272 Advocacy Team member Hannah Michael (SFS ’21).
Several descendant groups have called for reparations in different forms, such as financial reparations, including the GU272 Isaac Hawkins Legacy Group, the GU272 Descendants Association and the Legacy of the GU272 Alliance.
The reconciliation contribution bill was inspired by the history of the student activities fee that is included in the cost of attendance, created by Georgetown students in 1999, according to Appel. The committee voted Tuesday to make the reconciliation contribution as a stand-alone fee, instead of tying it to the student activities fee as it was originally proposed.
Senators present expressed their support for the referendum and agreed the topic deserved further deliberation. In the days since, committee members and team members have continued discussing further details on the semesterly fee and the establishment structures that would determine allocation of the reparations.
Moving forward, discussions need to focus on the opinions and experiences of the descendants of the GU272, Michael said.
“The wrong that was done in the 1838 sale can’t be amended without making sure that that’s the center of any work that we do,” Michael said in an interview with The Hoya.
The GU272 Advocacy Team met Thursday night to continue discussions on the referendum, but Appel and Michael declined to comment on what details they anticipated further deliberations would address.
Mélisande Short-Colomb (COL ’21), a descendant of the GU272 who was present at the Tuesday meeting, said the referendum is an opportunity for redress.
“We are here tonight because current Georgetown University students have the opportunity to address and provide funding in a way that has not that has not been done in any other university in the United States or in the world,” Short-Colomb said at the meeting. “It is a student demonstration that students are willing to make a statement.”
Talks around the referendum will resume next week as senators discuss guidelines for the reconciliation contribution, as well as the creation of a specific structure for the GU272 Reconciliation Board of Trustees, which would oversee how the funds benefitted GU272 descendants.
The senate talks are part of a wider discussion of university efforts to address Georgetown’s historical dependence on slavery. In 2015, the university created the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to address this history and the GU272 specifically. The Working Group’s 2016 report outlined recommendations for how the university should proceed, including the recommendation of financial aid for the descendant community.
Though the university has apologized for its role in the sale of the 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana and named buildings on campus after Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft, the first name listed on the 1838 bill of sale and the founder of one of the first schools for black girls in Georgetown respectively, Georgetown has not created financial aid initiatives for descendants, despite their requests for such aid.
Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, who was a member of the working group, was supportive of the student discussions.
“I’m excited to see that the students are thinking about Georgetown history and their relationship to it,” Rothman said. “I’m all in favor of conversations that flow from that.”
Georgetown is engaged in dialogue with the descendant community and the Society of Jesus as it continues to consider other recommendations from the working group, according to university spokesperson Matt Hill.
“We appreciate the engagement and support of students and GUSA and will continue to consult with students and other members of the university community as we work in partnership with Descendants on a process that recognizes the terrible legacy of slavery and promotes racial justice in southern Louisiana, southern Maryland and throughout the nation,” Hill wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The relationship between the GU272 and the university ought to be incorporated into more of Georgetown’s curriculum to ensure broader awareness among the student body, Rothman said.
“The more we can do to elevate the consciousness of our own history around campus, the better. I’d like to see classes that devote some attention to this history — not just in history classes, but in philosophy classes, theology classes, business classes and art classes,” Rothman said. “Some of that is going on already, but I think that in some cases, students can take it upon themselves.”
This article was updated Jan. 23 to more accurately reflect the role of the GU272 Advocacy Team and to clarify the nature of the proposed fee.