By: Ian Simpson, Reuters News Service
WASHINGTON, Sept 1 (Reuters) – Georgetown University apologized on Thursday for its historical links to slavery, saying it would give an admissions edge to descendants of slaves whose sale in the 19th century helped pay off the U.S. school’s debts.
The 1838 sale, worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars, was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuits. A portion of the profit, about $500,000, was used to help pay off Georgetown’s debts at a time when the college was struggling financially. The slaves were uprooted from the Maryland plantations and shipped to estates in Louisiana.
The Washington-based university, run by the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, will create an institute to study the history of slavery at the school. It will also rename two buildings that had honored presidents who oversaw the 1838 sale of the 272 slaves, who had worked on church-affiliated plantations in Maryland.
“The most appropriate ways for us to redress the participation of our predecessors in the institution of slavery is to address the manifestations of the legacy of slavery in our time,” Georgetown President John DeGioia said in a statement.
The school’s steps go further than those taken by other U.S. universities that are confronting their past association with slavery, including Harvard, Brown, Princeton and the University of North Carolina.
But some criticized as inadequate the decision to give the descendants of the sold slaves the same admissions preference as the children of faculty, staff and alumni.
“We remain hopeful that we can forge a relationship with Georgetown that will lead to ‘real’ atonement,” Karran Harper Royal, an organizer of a group of descendants, said in an email.
She added that the school should have offered scholarships to descendants of the slaves and included them on a panel that made the recommendations.
The steps follow recommendations by a committee DeGioia appointed in September 2015 on how to recognize Georgetown’s links to slavery.
The 18,000-student university will also create a memorial for slaves whose work benefited the school, including those sold to plantations in Louisiana to pay off Georgetown’s debts. Descendants of the slaves will be included in a group advising on the memorial.
The two buildings being renamed by university officials originally paid tribute to the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the 1838 sale. Now one will be called Isaac Hall to commemorate the life of Isaac Hawkins, one of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838, and the other Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of a 19th-century educator who founded a school for black girls in Washington.
Students at dozens of U.S. universities staged protests last fall over the legacy of racism on campus. The protests led to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri and prompted many schools to review their diversity commitments.
Dr. DeGioia said he planned to apologize for the wrongs of the past “within the framework of the Catholic tradition,” by offering what he described as a Mass of reconciliation in partnership with the Jesuit leadership in the United States and the Archdiocese of Washington.
“This community participated in the institution of slavery,’’ Dr. DeGioia said, addressing a crowd of hundreds of students, faculty members and descendants at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall. “This original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic was present here. We have been able to hide from this truth, bury this truth, ignore and deny this truth.”
“As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history,’’ he said. “We must acknowledge it.”
When Dr. DeGioia invited questions from the audience, a man in a gray suit took the microphone. “My name is Joe Stewart,’’ he said, “and I am a descendant of the 272.”
Mr. Stewart, a retired corporate executive and an organizer of a group of more than 300 descendants, expressed gratitude to the university’s working group on slavery and to Dr. DeGioia for their efforts. But he said that descendants, who had not been included as members of the committee, must be involved in decision making on these initiatives moving forward.
“Our attitude is nothing about us, without us,’’ said Mr. Stewart, who was flanked by five other descendants.