Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation in Georgetown

Georgetown University, Washington DC, Wikipedia Commons
Georgetown University, Washington DC, Wikipedia Commons

Georgetown University in Washington DC has announced that it will issue a public apology for the Jesuits’ participation in the slave trade and enact a series of reforms. A working group was appointed last year by the university’s president, John DeGioia, and its recommendations were made public this week. They include a formal apology by way of a “Mass of Reconciliation” and the renaming of two campus buildings that previously honoured Jesuits who participated in the 1838 slave sale. The university also said that descendants of the slaves it sold who apply to Georgetown will have their applications weighted in the same way as legacy applicants, who have family members who graduated from the school.

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher education in the United States. In the early years of the 19th century, it relied on profits from local lands which had been donated to the Jesuits and on private funding. Among their methods of raising money for Georgetown and other schools, the Maryland Jesuits conducted a mass sale in 1838 of some 272 slaves to two Louisiana businessmen who operated plantations in the Deep South.

“While we acknowledge that the moral debt of slaveholding and the sale of the enslaved people can never be repaid,” the report by the working group says, “we are convinced that reparative justice requires a meaningful financial commitment from the university … Slavery - slave labor and the slave trade - is part of our history. All of us - students, alumni, faculty, staff, administration, and friends - are the heirs of this history, and all of us must make ourselves its humbled trustees.”

The impact of slaveryThe slave census of 1838

The group convened to consider the events of 1838 was comprised of 15 members of the faculty, staff and students. It was chaired by a Jesuit priest and began its work last September, after protests over the university’s decision to retain the name of campus buildings which honoured two Jesuits who participated in the slave sale: Thomas Mulledy SJ and William McSherry SJ. The sale generated the equivalent of almost $3 million in today’s money to help fund the university.

Last autumn, the working group began offering a series of recommendations about how the university and the Jesuits who founded Georgetown could acknowledge its past in a meaningful way. In addition to a formal apology and the renaming of the buildings, it also recommended financial aid for the descendants of the slaves sold in 1838 and new academic resources to study the impact of slavery on campus and in wider society today.

As an interim measure, the buildings which carried the names of Mulledy and McSheery were renamed last year as Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall. In their report, the working group suggested the buildings should be called Isaac Hall, in recognition of the first slave named in the sales agreement, and Anne Marie Becraft Hall. Becraft was an African-American Catholic religious sister who founded a school for black girls in the neighbourhood of Georgetown in 1827.

A plantation owner in Virginia visits the slave quarters with his family in 1876. Public domainReaching out to the descendants of slaves

“We hope that the two buildings will stand as a reminder of how our university community disregarded the high values of human dignity and education when it came to the plight of enslaved and free African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” the report says. It goes on to state that an apology is only a first step in a years-long process to understand the university’s history with slavery and to begin to reconcile with those who still suffer from it. “Words along with symbolic actions, such as the naming of buildings, and material investments, such as the foundation of an institute for the study of slavery, work together in making apology a coherent whole,” it concludes.

Other recommendations from the working group include the erection of statues commemorating the slaves outside the halls and plaques around campus highlighting the university’s historical relationship to slavery. The group also recommended that the university reach out to slave descendants in both Washington and Louisiana, listening to their needs and assisting with genealogy research, and consider offering descendants admission and financial aid to the university.

“New efforts and ideas have emerged from the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, and still others will emerge in the time ahead,” John DeGioia wrote to the Georgetown community on 1 September 2016. “As I shared one year ago when we launched this Working Group: ultimately, this will be the work of our Georgetown community.  Each one of us, and all of us, has a role that we can play and a contribution that we can make.”