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Jan Lee headshot

Descendants of Georgetown University Slaves Call for Unified Change, 'Not Reparations'

By Jan Lee

Earlier this month, Georgetown University did something many in the media found remarkable: It acknowledged its link to slavery. In an inspiring speech, Georgetown University President John DeGioia said the university "recognized the need to reconcile a painful part of our history: our participation in the institution of slavery and the benefit we received from the sale of 272 enslaved children, women and men from Jesuit plantations in Maryland in 1838." The slaves he spoke of, owned by the Jesuits, were sold to bring in much-needed funds to keep the university afloat. Included in the sale were a 2-year-old baby and a 13-year-old boy.

Now, more than 175 years after the sale, the university stepped up to acknowledge its controversial past. "This community participated in the institution of slavery. This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here," DeGioia said emphatically, pointing toward the ground as if to convince his listeners.

Last year, as the story of Georgetown's controversial history began to spread, the university convened a working group. It was tasked with coming up with a recommended response. What steps should the university take, if any, toward reparations? What responsibilities does it owe the American public?

The end result was an attractive website detailing the history, the slaves' identities and the working group's 105-page recommendations. The recommendations basically came down to three possible steps:

  • An apology to the descendants and the community at large for its involvement as a Catholic university in selling slaves to Catholic plantation owners;

  • Outreach to the descendants of the 272 slaves (now roughly 600 people and to the community)

  • Renaming of two buildings that had been named in memory of the men who had seen to the sale of the slaves in 1838..

A fourth option, giving descendants free (or reduced) tuition, was held in reserve by the president's office.

Not surprisingly, Georgetown's announcement received a fair amount of media coverage. So did the fact that the university was under considerable pressure for some months by faculty and students, who felt Georgetown should have acknowledged the history sooner. After all, more than a dozen other universities around the country, including Harvard and the University of Virginia, already admitted their inappropriate history. Why hadn't one of the country's oldest Catholic institutions?

When news of the forthcoming apology was finally announced from the university podium, the media gobbled it up. Georgetown's embarrassing history was soon to be put to rest.

What wasn't as widely published (and wasn't in the university's careful historical account of the revelations of its early history,) is the effort that some of the 600 descendants have undertaken to try to reach reconciliation with the university and its history. According to an account published by the Washington Post and later by a Georgetown alumnus, the small group asked to be included in the university's working group when it was being created. Their reasoning was simple: Who else would have a better insight into the impact of slave history and the practical means of reparations for this history?

According to several of the GU272 members (the self-appointed name of the organization), requests to be included in the working group were not acknowledged. And this month, the descendants revealed that it had asked the university to go beyond the apology, outreach and building renaming and help them start a foundation that would work toward "a common good" in recognition of the country's former history of supporting slavery. To that end, they asked the university to help them found a $1 billion foundation. They hoped that money would come from all of the institutions that had benefited from the slave trade, including Georgetown University.

But they didn't come to the table unprepared. The organization had already raised $115,000 of their own funds as seed money, an amount that reflected the original payment the university received for all of the slaves. In today's economy, it would be about $3 million.

Needless to say, the group was disappointed that the university didn't accept their idea.

"Our vision is not about reparations," Joseph Stewart, a member of GU272, told the Washington Post. "It’s not about getting anything that just benefits descendants. It’s about having an opportunity to have a common good.”

At a time when racial tensions are high in many parts of the country, and both educational institutions and law enforcement agencies are being called upon to justify their historical relationship with minorities, the group's proposal offers a sensible if not graceful way to encourage reconciliation on all sides.

Yes, Georgetown University did repudiate its terrible link to the slave trade. And it has offered some admirable steps that help recognize that history. They are admittedly all steps that the university will benefit from in student attendance if not in tuition.  But when the descendants of its victims ask for help to institute a legacy that in their eyes could help unite communities, doesn't it have an obligation to help? Shouldn't the voices of those descendants be included in deciding the steps to reconciliation? And who better to decide the vision that unification should be built on than the victims' communities?

Georgetown University's multi-layered plan will help ensure that the public can equate its owners' mistakes with positive investments. But my fear is that years from now, that plan may be remembered as a concession rather than a positive step to bring communities together.

Image: Flickr/Timothy Vollmer

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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