When Georgetown University made an announcement that they would be giving preferential treatment to descendants of slaves, a virtual Pandora’s box of journalists took to their keyboards to convince everyone of whichever side they deemed worthy of coverage.
Following recommendations made by the Working Group on Slavery Memory and Reconciliation, John J. Degioia made an announcement on upcoming changes to the school that were designed with certain goals in mind, namely, to provide reparations as well as information to individuals with a slavery involved past. The school is to award preferential status to students applying who can prove they are descendants of one of the 272 slaves sold during a massive slave sale in 1838 conducted by Jesuit sponsors to keep the school afloat. Degioia also mentioned a formal apology that was to be given on behalf of the school. A memorial will be made to honor the slaves whose labor benefited the college, and the names of two buildings will be changed.
Mulledy Hall will be renamed to Isaac Hall. Isaac was the name of the 65 year old man at the top of the list on the bill of sale for the 272 slaves sold. Father Thomas Mulledy was the school’s president during this time and wrote the articles of agreement that facilitated the trade. Father William McSherry was another president of the school who organized the bill of sale. The hall named after him will be changed to Anne Marie Becraft Hall after an African-American educator with roots in Georgetown.
Georgetown University was established by Jesuits, a unique branch of Catholicism that began as a group of missionaries who promoted love and acceptance of one another, rather than persecution of those considered to be sinners. A prime example of this can be seen in the current Pope, who is the first Jesuit to hold the title. This rejuvenation of the faith and its core values has prompted unconventional preaching, and may have had some influence on the college’s decision to look into their history and make these decisions.
The history behind what led to the sale is an interesting story, with many forces acting upon it. During an era when Jesuits were prohibited from charging their students tuition, the school saw a great economic downturn. The funding for the school relied heavily upon profit from plantations in Maryland which were worked by slaves and owned by Jesuit leadership. The school was in debt and was not making enough money from the slave labor to pay for the college. Not only that, but pressure for emancipation had begun, and slave riots were more common. These factors led the leaders to the decision to sell 272 slaves in order to pay debt and keep the school funded.
This was not the only slave sale made by Georgetown’s Jesuit leadership, but certainly the largest and most impactful. Factions of Jesuit leadership took different stances on how to handle the issue. While the majority wanted the slaves sold outright, some were against the idea entirely, and other still looked for ways to liberate them while also solving the problem in one fell swoop. One such idea was to sell for a term: the practice of selling slaves to an owner who would provide their emancipation after a set number of years of work, similar to indentured servitude. While in theory this could have seemed like a good and generous idea, it was not easy to account for, and the freedom of the formerly enslaved could not be guaranteed. There was a risk of selling under that pretense for a lower price, and them still working for life. Being of such magnitude, the Roman Jesuit authority caught wind of the sale, and gave the school conditions that would have to be met for the sale to take place. They asked that families not be separated, that baptized slaves be allowed to continue practicing their Catholic faith, and that the money made be put towards endowments. While the school put in an effort to meet these conditions, like the term sale, the outcome was not reliable. In the end, the slaves were used as mortgage and the conditions were not met.
The sale made a revenue of $115,000, which would be close to $3.3 million in present-day standards after accounting for inflation. This was to be paid over the course of ten years, but ended up not being paid in full until 1862 due to continued negotiations and complications. It was then, and is now, one the most well-documented slave sales in American history, which gives the school a unique opportunity to provide resources and information to descendants.
Many slaves went to plantations in Louisiana where they worked in harsh conditions picking cotton or harvesting sugar cane. They were separated from their families, and many were sold more than once. In 1848 a Jesuit priest went to visit one of the plantations in Louisiana. In a letter he noted that the owners were not keeping up their end of the bargain, particularly not providing religious instructions for Catholics. He implored the president of the school to provide funding to build a church in the area, but there is no record of this being fulfilled.
The prompting of this extensive research was not demanded by the student body, but rather prompted by the current university president. He asked the university to reflect upon this unsettling part of its past, and to try to come up with ways to make reparations and acknowledgments. From this, the Working Group on Slavery Memory and Reconciliation was formed and began a year-long research into historical documents relating to the school in order to form a report of recommendations for the school. Among other things, they were tasked to make recommendations to promote opportunity for conversation, and to examine and interpret historical sites on campus that may have connections to slavery.
The report spreads 104 pages, and is publicly accessible on Georgetown’s site which is sectioned entirely for this conversation on their history and involvement in slavery. It gives a detailed overview of the slave sale, and history of slavery relating to Georgetown University. It also delves into the causes and pressures leading to owning slaves and pushing forth with the massive sale. The section recommending that a formal apology be issued states it should be made “for the ways it participated in and benefited from slavery.”
The report does not specifically ask for slave descendants to receive preferential treatment. Instead, it calls for the school to create a way to engage descendants. This includes but is not limited to: meeting in the community to discuss the history, fostering means for genealogical research, and “exploring the feasibility” of admission and financial aid help for “the decedent community.” It has a heavy focus on reparations to be made specifically to the family of slaves involved in the trade.
One suggestion made is a memorial to mark sites with historical informative text in areas on campus heavily related to their slave holdings. The group also recommends creating an institute for the study of slavery and investment in diversity. Attention and funding to improve the racial climate on campus is mentioned, and intensifying outreach to the African-American community.
One of the last recommendations is to help engage other universities to look into parts of their past that they may not be proud of. College is supposed to be a place for uncomfortable conversation, and while some colleges will refute that idea, Georgetown University seems to be keeping this concept alive. Regardless of your stance, the work that went into detailing this point in their history is amazing and should be applauded as it truly symbolizes critical thinking, and the dialog college should foster. If anything should be unanimously appreciated about this, it should be promotion of conversation and importance of recognizing the shameful parts of history in order to learn and move forward.