In a moving ceremony on Tuesday, Georgetown University officially renamed two of its campus buildings after people it sold into slavery in the 1800s.
“We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry,” said Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, at a Georgetown chapel. “Forgiveness is yours to bestow in your time and in your way.”
In 1838, Georgetown sold 272 people to a plantation in order to pay off a large debt. Many of the people were already enslaved by some of the university’s Jesuit priests, but the Louisiana plantation they were sold to had even worse conditions. On Tuesday, the descendants of these people gathered at a university chapel as the school seeks forgiveness.
“It is our very enslavement of another, our very ownership of another, culminating in the tragic sale of 272 women, men and children that remains with us to this day, trapping us in a historic truth for which we implore mercy and justice, hope and healing,” Kesicki said.
Student activism has led to Georgetown University taking steps to rectify its historic ties to the enslavement of African Americans.
The two buildings were originally named Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall. Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy was the university’s 17th president and brokered the sale. William McSherry assisted Mulledy with the sale.
Now, the buildings are called Isaac Hawkins Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall.
During the interim, Mulledy Hall was known as “Freedom Hall” and McSherry Hall was called “Remembrance Hall.”
“Their pain was unparalleled. Their pain is still here. It burns in the soul of every person of African descent in the United States,” said Sandra Green Thomas, one of the descendants, during the gathering. “We the descendants return to the home place, our ancestor’s home place acknowledging contrition, offering forgiveness. Hoping for penance and more importantly seeking justice for them and ourselves.”
Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation was created by Georgetown President John J. DeGioia to help the university shine light on and acknowledge its historic ties to slavery. In 2016 the Working Group compiled a report for DeGioia with recommendations for action the university should take. The report suggested the halls be named after Hawkins and Becraft.
Jessica Tilson, one of Hawkins’ descendants, told WUSA9 prior to the renaming ceremony that despite her ancestors’ brutal history, she does not feel angry.
“I’m just so happy to be here,” Tilson said. “This is such an exciting moment. Most people see pain. I just see happiness because I know my great great grandfather’s name. I know his name was Isaac. I know his parent’s names. And most people don’t know that.”
DeGioia was present on Tuesday as well and apologized to the descendants.
He had previously announced that descendants of the 272 people sold to Louisiana would be given preferred admissions to the university.
“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,” he had said.
Isaac Hawkins and Anne Marie Becraft
Hawkins was 65 when he, along with most of his family, was sold to Louisiana. Hawkins is the first person listed on the agreement for the sale. He is listed without a surname, according to the Working Group’s report. The report estimates Hawkins was born in 1773 but never experienced freedom.
“He was still in bondage in 1838, and it is unlikely that he lived long enough to see slavery overthrown a quarter century later,” the report states. “He does not appear in later bills of sale in the 1850s that do include his children.
“Isaac was a real person with a name and a family. His labor and his value helped build Georgetown and rescue it from financial crisis.”
Becraft, who was a free woman, founded one of the first schools for Black girls in Georgetown and was one of the United States’ first Black nuns.
According to the Working Group, Becraft was “a person with deep roots in the local community of Georgetown, a trailblazing educator, and a Catholic religious sister in the nineteenth century.”
“The scholarly encyclopedia Black Women in America describes her as one of America’s most illustrious women, whose ‘accomplishments in education in early nineteenth-century America helped shape Black Catholic history in the United States,’” the report adds.