In 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to pay off an operations debt. Almost 200 years later, John J. DeGioia, the university’s current president, announced unprecedented steps to make amends for slavery, including issuing a formal apology to the descendants of its former slaves and offering descendants preferred admissions.
Georgetown’s plan of action came as a result of a 102-page report created by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. DeGioia and Working Group Chair Fr. David Collins presented the report to the Georgetown community on Thursday. The Working Group also called for a living memorial on campus for the remembrance of the school’s slaves and to establish an institute for the study of slavery, among other measures.
Georgetown has historic ties to the enslavement of African Americans. The university depended on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to assist in financing its operations. Its 17th president, Thomas F. Mulledy, sold 272 enslaved people owned by the Jesuit priests who founded and ran the university to pay off $47,654.54 in operations debt in 1838. That is the equivalent to about $3.3 million today.
“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,” said DeGioia, who met over the summer with descendants in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Maringouin, Louisiana, as well as Spokane, Washington.
In regard to the university’s admissions policy, descendants of Georgetown’s slaves will be treated similarly to legacy applicants, who are children and grandchildren of alumni.
“Descendants have to have an advantage. No ambiguity,” Collins said in an interview with The Georgetown Voice.
“We give care and attention to members of the Georgetown community — faculty, staff, alumni — who have an enduring relationship with the university,” DeGioia said. “We will give that same care and attention to the children of the descendants.”
DeGioia did not mention financial aid or scholarships for descendants of the enslaved. However, the Working Group made recommendations that the university look into the feasibility of offering financial assistance as well.
Following the urging of student activists to address the school’s slavery legacy, in September 2015, DeGioia established the Working Group, comprised of students, faculty and alumni.
Karran Harper Royal of New Orleans is a direct descendant of some of the 272 enslaved people. On Thursday, Royal met with Georgetown students who held protests on campus last fall:
— Karran Harper Royal (@KHRoyal) September 1, 2016
Royal was also one of the descendants who attended Georgetown’s announcement and presented a Descendants Declaration:
— Karran Harper Royal (@KHRoyal) September 2, 2016
The Georgetown Slavery Archive, initiated by the Archives Subgroup of the Working Group, is dedicated to creating a connection with the descendants of slaves.
“We have learned about many living descendants of the people who were once owned by Jesuits associated with the Maryland Province,” the website states. “The Georgetown Slavery Archive is dedicated to reaching out to descendants, gathering their knowledge of their family histories, and telling their stories.”
The Working Group also made the recommendation to permanently rename the two buildings named for past Georgetown leaders associated with the slave trade, Mulledy and William McSherry. One building will become Anne Marie Becraft Hall, named for a Black educator and nun, and the other will be Isaac Hall after an enslaved Black man who was sold in 1838.
In November, students participated in a sit-in demonstration at DeGioia’s office demanding Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall officially be renamed. McSherry advised Mulledy on selling of slaves. He sold slaves as well.
DeGioia said in November that, pending a permanent change, Mulledy Hall would be known as “Freedom Hall” and McSherry Hall will be “Remembrance Hall.”