Georgetown University Owns Up

georgetownGeorgetown University President John J. DeGioia went to Spokane, Wash., this month to meet with the great-great-great-granddaughter of two enslaved people who, along with other 270 others , were sold in 1838 by Maryland Jesuits to stave off the college’s bankruptcy. On Wednesday and Thursday, he will be in Louisiana, where the human cargo ended up, to meet with more descendants. “To listen, to learn,” said Mr. DeGioia of his efforts. Georgetown is wrestling with how to make amends for its complicity in the nation’s slave trade, recognizing that this is a matter that goes beyond history to touch real people with real lives.

The university decided, in the wake of campus unrest last fall over its role in slavery, to expand its academic focus in African American studies, creating a department with additional faculty and establishing a research center on racial justice. It also removed from two buildings the names of the two priests who promoted and arranged the sale of the Maryland families. And Mr. DeGioia appointed a working group of students, alumni, professors and others to recommend further steps. Their report is set to be released this summer.

“I don’t think putting a plaque on the wall is going to be an answer,” said Mr. DeGioia in a meeting with Post editors and reporters. Other schools with ties to slavery have taken that approach, but Georgetown is unique in that the names of its slaves were not lost to history; their records as practicing Catholics allowed them and their descendants to be traced through generations. Much of the tracing was done by the Georgetown Memory Project, a nonprofit set up by a Georgetown alumnus who believed the Jesuits and university weren’t doing enough. So far, the group has identified about 2,000 people descended from those sold. Its statistical models project there may be as many as 15,000.

When we asked Mr. DeGioia if he considers the descendants to be part of the Georgetown family, he said it would be arrogant of him to make assumptions about how the descendants view their relationship to the school; “that they would want to be considered means more to me than anything.” If they do, the university should be willing to extend to descendants interested in attending Georgetown the same legacy benefits that give a modest leg up to children of Georgetown faculty and alumni seeking admission. But that’s a small step.

A university president meeting with the descendants is important and historic; it’s an acknowledgment of the humanity that was impacted by slavery and the racism and injustice that persist. “How do you really value the damage that was done in a way that’s straightforward and fair?” asked one descendant, Orlando Ward, in an interview with the New York Times. Mr. Ward’s ancestors ended up on a plantation in Maringouin (Cajun French for “mosquito”), a little town outside Baton Rouge that is desperately impoverished. Of the roughly 1,110 people living there, approximately 900 are direct descendants of the human beings whose sale price bolstered the university’s endowment. It is one of the places Mr. DeGioia is set to visit, and a place where we hope he will find some of the answers to what is fair and right.

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