Here I am. A Georgetown University student and a descendant of the 272, in the middle of a debate about reparations to families sold by Georgetown and the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus in 1838 — and enslaved by them for more than two centuries before that.
I have a voice because God gave me one, and a strong, clear mind to back it up. I use them both intentionally in support of the proposed referendum to establish an annual “GU272 Contribution Fund,” with the proceeds to be used for charitable purposes directly benefiting the descendants of people enslaved and trafficked by the Maryland Jesuits.
Let’s not confuse this referendum with the concept of “reparations.” Reparations is not a word black people use very often. It’s mostly a word white people use to scare other white people about black people and our collective history. It’s a form of ridicule used by misinformed white people to intimidate black people; a way of saying, “We’ll never know who you are or who you came from — you have no name.”
This debate is not really about reparations as we usually imagine them, but has more to do with other words that we value: responsibility, respect and reconciliation.
I’m sure there are students whose first reaction to financially contributing to a fund to benefit others may be difficult when they themselves and their families have faced disenfranchisement and hardship. However, Georgetown students all benefit from the university’s existence and this referendum is an opportunity for all of us, including myself and other descendant students, to contribute to the fund.
Let’s begin with responsibility. Georgetown University was founded, operated and rescued from bankruptcy with proceeds from slave labor. The 1838 sale of my ancestors and other slaves by the Maryland Jesuits generated $115,000, which translates to $3.3 million in current dollars — that number then increases to $3.6 billion with compound interest as Rev. Thomas Mulledy, S.J., demanded in the 1838 sale agreement.
That $3.6 billion continues to make a difference in sustaining and expanding Georgetown in the present. No other family — or group of families — has contributed $3.6 billion to Georgetown’s endowment. When our ancestors were sold in 1838, the proceeds were used for the construction costs of the dormitory now known as Isaac Hawkins Hall. Today, rent is still collected from students who live there, providing income to the university.
Students continue to reap benefits from slavery in the present, living in these dorms, learning in these classrooms, walking this campus. We can surmise that if the university still owned people, and there was a market, a sale could be brokered to fund mold remediation. It’s that serious.
Georgetown students and alumni have a responsibility to the families of enslaved people who provided the wealth that sustains the institution to the present day. This wealth was not a gift; it was not a grant. The Georgetown community owes these families a debt greater than gratitude. It is the debt of existence — there would be no Georgetown University if it were not for this sale.
Then there is the second value: respect. A respect that requires Georgetown students to put their money where their mouth is. Supporting and voting yes on this referendum would begin a fund for a more equitable future and create a mission not divided by us and them — where we are not only men and women for others, but strive to ensure there are no “others” anymore.
That rings us to the third value: reconciliation. For over two centuries, Georgetown students and administrators have been complicit in using and profiting from black bodies and the wealth those bodies created for their own purposes. Distinct traces of that mindset exist today, even among folk of goodwill who are deeply committed to achieving some form of reconciliation with the descendant community.
However, “reconciliation” implies that wrongs were committed on both sides, and that is clearly not the case. In attempting to “reconcile” with its past, Georgetown has thus far only sought solutions that benefit the university. While renaming buildings after Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft are considerate gestures, these actions have no impact on the descendant community; Georgetown students receive all the benefit. This student referendum can provide a source of long-term commitment to righting wrongs and tangibly improve the lives of people who have been left out from Georgetown’s opportunities.
I am a member of the GU272 descendant family, a great-grandchild of slaves sold south, from the ancestral Maryland plantations that also gave Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I am also a member of the Georgetown University family. I know that there are no people better than us to make the necessary change — and to make it now.
Our self respect demand that we as a unified student body make a decisive break with the past, by committing to a just, fair and economically beneficent future for the families who were the involuntary founders of Georgetown University. Georgetown students, by voting “yes” on this referendum, will ensure that the university genuinely embraces a more equitable and just future for us all.
Mélisande Short-Colomb is a sophomore in the College. She is a descendant of the GU272.