In perhaps the most progressive move to address the legacy of African enslavement in America by an educational institution, Georgetown University will soon offer priority admission to direct descendants of those whose enslavement directly benefited the school. Under the leadership of Georgetown’s president, John DeGioia and the university’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, a full report documenting the institution’s relation to slavery, and suggestions for reconciliation was released Sept. 1.
Deja Lindsey, 20, a junior at Georgetown University, talks on her cell phone in front of Healy Hall on campus, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Washington. The university released a report calling on its leaders to offer a formal apology for the university’s participation in the slave trade. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
According to the report, Georgetown University’s origins and growth, as well as its economic viability showed a direct link to their ownership and operation of plantations throughout Maryland. The Jesuit-owned and -operated plantations used profits from slave labor and proceeds from their sale to fund the school, whose students attended classes free of charge.
“On our own campus, there are also the many whose experience of our community is fundamentally marred by estrangement, alienation, and hostility, sustained by persistent racism. The unrest on many campuses and in many communities over the past year gives evidence to how ubiquitous, profound, and enduring racial alienation and injustice remains in American society. The University owes its own efforts toward reconciliation to all of these,” the report concludes.
Craig Steven Wilder, a professor of American history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” told WAMU, American University’s radio station, that while he was cautiously optimistic about the efforts Georgetown had made, he was less so about the ripple effect of other similar organizations following their lead.
“Georgetown deserves credit for going farther than just about any other of its peer institutions in dealing with the question of its relationship to slavery. And one of the greatest accomplishments of the report is, actually, its tone,” Wilder said. “It really does capture the gravity of the problem that the university is dealing with, and it does so with a kind of painful honesty at times that I think they really deserve credit for.”
Relatives of the group of 272 enslaved men, women and children – named by Georgetown researchers as the GU272 – who were sold in an 1838 agreement, will become eligible for the same admission priority enjoyed by legacy applicants.
Wilder said that Georgetown, unlike other colonial colleges with ties to African enslavement, maintains its identity as a religious institution and therefore, must deal with its links to slavery as historical and intellectual, as well as morally. “At the University of Virginia, the president there has a commission on slavery and the university. At William & Mary, there’s the Lemon Project, which is an ongoing, multiyear research project into the history of slavery and race on the campus. There are a number of universities that have done stuff, but there’s the act of acknowledging that there’s a relationship between slavery and the university — a very different thing is committing to addressing that history as an institutional obligation,” Wilder said. “I think part of the reason why a lot of universities are afraid of the conversation about reparations communities of people making claims upon the institution based on these histories.”
Additional recommendations made to DeGioia by the committee, include: permanently renaming Mulledy Hall to Isaac Hall after the first enslaved person named in the “Articles of Agreement” between Thomas Mulledy, S.J., and the Louisiana businessmen Henry Johnson and Jesse Batey; renaming McSherry Hall to Anne Marie Becraft Hall (also known as Sister Aloyons), a woman of color and trailblazing educator with deep family roots in the Georgetown neighborhood; offering a formal apology; and holding public events to explore the story of Jesuit slaveholding and its legacies at Georgetown and beyond.