Georgetown University, a nationally ranked institution, wouldn’t exist without the use of slave labor. In fact, most of the popular universities we know of in America were built by slaves. Now, many schools have acknowledged this. They have built memorials, started extensive studies, and hosted presentations on the history of slavery in relation to their institutions. However, no institution has gone so far as to give a form of reparations.

Georgetown University is planning to give preferential admissions to the descendants of slaves. And that’s not all. Because of the work of The Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, their requests are being made known and now fulfilled. Founded by Georgetown’s President, John J. DeGioia, the group  worked on a report that prompted the steps now being taken.

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The recommendations to the president posed by the group include renaming two of the residence halls, submitting a formal apology, erecting a memorial, as well as a few other requests. This is based on the university’s significant ties with slavery. Even some members of The Working Group are descendants of slaves (this includes faculty as well as students). The most notable story of slaveholding at Georgetown happened in 1838.

“The Jesuits [Catholics] in colonial North America and the early United States owned more than 1,000 slaves on Maryland plantations, as well as in the Midwest and Deep South. Few of the slaves were emancipated until the law required it. This slave labor generated revenue for Catholic pastoral and educational foundations. Revenue from the sale of these men, women and children regularly supported a growing network of missions, parishes and schools. In 1838 such revenue saved Georgetown from serious debt and settled a dispute with the archbishop of Baltimore, who had wanted the plantations for himself. But even in the 1780s as church officials were planning to open Georgetown, revenues from the sale of “supernumerary” slaves were already targeted for the school’s operations.”

The report additionally states that Georgetown’s funding in turn supported Maryland plantations. The institution was pro-slavery and pro-confederacy during times of controversy. Present day, there are buildings and sites on campus named after proponents of that 1838 slave trade, and other associations with slavery. It’s also noted that The Working Group was shocked at the amount of available written information there was on the Maryland plantations and Georgetown’s involvement, since nothing has been done about that information until now.

So September 1, President DeGioia announced the list of steps that the university is going to take:

  • Offering a Mass of Reconciliation in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States, and engaging the Georgetown community in a “Journey of Reconciliation”
  • Naming the building Freedom Hall (once known as Mulledy Hall) as Isaac Hall and name the building Remembrance Hall (once known as McSherry Hall) as Anne Marie Becraft Hall
  • Engaging descendants and members of our community in developing a shared understanding, determining priorities, and creating processes and structures
  • Establishing a living and evolving memorial to the slaves from whom Georgetown benefitted and establishing a Working Group, including descendants of those slaves, to advise on its creation
  • Establishing the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown to support the continued, active engagement with descendants, sustained research and other actions
  • Giving descendants the same consideration we give members of the Georgetown community in the admissions process
  • Strengthening Georgetown’s Library and its Special Collections to promote scholarship in the field of racial justice and deepen archival resources to support genealogical work
  • Working to identify new ways to enhance access and opportunity for those who wish to attend college and continue to support schools like Cristo Rey that seek to provide stronger pathways to higher education.

It’s one thing to acknowledge slave involvement at American institutions and its another thing to talk about it. But to go as far as making public connections with the defendants of slaves is astounding. Georgetown’s president is not afraid to to say that American institutions owe something to the millions of black slaves that were bought and sold as pieces of property. The dehumanization, oppression, intense labor, and violent activity involved with slave labor cannot be captured in one single memorial. The people of Georgetown understand that it takes a shift in perspective of the entire university to push change in this area.

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