How Georgetown University Wants to Atone for Its Slave-Trading Past
The university plans to give the descendants of slaves it sold in 1838 an advantage in its admissions process, as it seeks to make amends for the past.
In an address to students and faculty this afternoon, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia offered a public apology for the school’s ties to the slave trade, particularly the 1838 sale of 272 slaves.
DeGioia’s comments followed the release of a 104-page report by the university-convened Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, which documented the university’s sordid past and outlined its plans to atone for its ties to slavery.
“We need to ensure that this tragic moment in our history can serve as a touchstone,” DeGioia said in a speech that was broadcast live on the university’s website. “We can be blocked by our past, or we can be strengthened, by recognition and reconciliation.” The address was met with a standing ovation.
It was the first step in what the Georgetown promises will be a formal apology to descendants of the 272 Jesuit-owned slaves the university sold in 1838, the profits of which were used to pay off school debts at the time.
The Washington, D.C., university will also give descendants of slaves owned by Maryland Jesuits an advantage in the admissions process, treating these applicants with the same preference afforded to children of faculty, staff, and alumni.
These are among many steps Georgetown is taking in response to a report by the Working Croup committee, which began examining the school’s history of slavery last September.
At the committee’s urging, two student dormitories named for university presidents who authorized the 1838 sale of slaves for $115,000 ($3.3 million today) were abandoned in November 2015. Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall were temporarily renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.
Georgetown graduate Lauren Williams (’08) said she had no knowledge of her alma mater’s racist history before she learned about the residential halls last year.
She cheered Thursday’s news that one of the buildings will be renamed Isaac Hall in honor of one of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838 (the other will be named after an African-American woman who founded a school for black girls in Washington).
But she said she was disappointed the school stopped short of offering descendants financial aid—a proposal that the committee considered but ultimately rejected.
“I’m proud that Georgetown is one of few universities to acknowledge its ties to slavery, but I’m really disappointed that the scholarships were not upheld,” Williams, features editor at Essence magazine, told The Daily Beast. “There was a very tangible monetary gain from the 1838 sale, and I think admission should be free for descendants of the enslaved.”
She was also disappointed to learn that descendants had not been invited to committee meetings. “If conversations are ongoing, I hope they will be more inclusive of people who are part of this legacy,” Williams said.
Sandra Green Thomas, 54, said she wished the school had made sure descendants like her were more involved in the committee’s decision-making process.
“Their behavior to me seems parallel to the behavior of Jesuits in 1838,” Thomas said. “They made decisions about what was best for Georgetown without any consideration of how my ancestors felt. Now Georgetown is doing the same thing today to descendants.”
While she said she appreciated the president’s efforts to meet with descendants privately, she believed these one-on-one meetings were inconsistent with the message he imparted to each of them.
“He came around and spoke with all of us about being part of a family, but I don’t think that’s the way you treat family,” she said, adding that the descendants should have been as involved in producing the report as official committee members.
“I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “This is new territory for them and for us, but it’s an issue that’s been around for a long time, and I don’t see how they can reconcile this issue without allowing us at the table.”
Thomas was also frustrated that she and others hadn’t been formally invited to President DeGioia’s speech on Thursday afternoon. A Georgetown student had shown her a copy of the invitation that was sent to the community, but at that point she hadn’t received one yet herself.
“DeGioia’s assistant told me that I could watch it online, then he sent me the invitation after I complained,” Thomas said, speaking on the phone from a cafeteria at Georgetown.
Thomas and other descendants have drafted a working “Declaration,” which a descendant named Joe Stewart read aloud from during a Q&A after the president’s speech.
Speaking on behalf of the 350 registered descendants, Stewart stressed that they want a “partnership” with the university.
“We’re not talking about reparation,” he said, “we’re talking about how this university can be an asset to the world… to help heal the racism that is destroying the world.”
Rochell Prater, whose great-grandfather Jackson Hawkins was sold by Georgetown, watched the events on campus Thursday from her home in Cincinnati.
“I’d like to see a healing process on both sides,” said Prater, 55, suggesting regular meetings between descendants and the committee. “I’m not interested in taking money from people, but I do think some of that money from the sale could go towards job development, entrepreneurship, and education for descendants.
“I feel that Georgetown taking the lead on this is awesome, but I’d also say that it can be a model for healing the nation—and for that I’m honored, grateful, and excited.”
Maurice Jackson, a tenured professor of history at Georgetown and one of the faculty members on the committee, took his entire class to see the speech.
“Some students and teachers will be elated and some won’t. It’s still a majority-white campus in a very rich part of the city,” he said.
As for descendants who aren’t fully satisfied with the report, he said he understood their grievances but urged patience.
“I’m African American, and every one of us is a descendant of slavery one way or another,” he said. “But if anyone thinks [this report] is going to change their life overnight, it won’t. This is just the beginning. It’s a labor of love and a labor of struggle.”