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Georgetown University Takes Major Step To Atone For Its Slave-Owning History

To pay off its debts, the priests who ran the school sold 272 slaves in 1838

Patricia Bayonne-Johnson holds a photo of her great-grandparents and their son. The retired science teacher discovered that some of her ancestors were sold by the Jesuits of the Maryland Province in 1838, to pay off Georgetown University's massive debt.

On Thursday, Georgetown University announced a broad plan to right at least some of the wrongs perpetuated by its slave-owning history. Nearly two centuries have passed since the university benefited from the sale of nearly 300 slaves, The New York Times reports, and now administrators plan to incorporate preferential admission treatment for those whose ancestors were enslaved.

To get the process started, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia made a formal apology over the course of his speech on Thursday while also outlining the reparative measures he plans to enforce. Among those measures will be an institute devoted to the study of slavery as well as a public memorial honoring the slaves who literally built the institution and were sold to keep the school running in the early 1800s. One campus building will be renamed after an African-American slave while another will take the name of a black teacher.

These provisions go far beyond what most universities offer the descendants of slaves who built their schools. While Brown, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and a handful of other colleges have acknowledged their slave-owning pasts, none have provided preferential treatment in the admissions process, say historians Craig Steven Wilder and Alfred L. Brophy.

Though today’s steps forward may be unparalleled, the children and grandchildren of Georgetown alumni have enjoyed the priority admissions for decades. This isn’t a level playing field—it’s the bare minimum. (Even if some people think the school has already gone too far).

Universities are expected to lead cultural shifts toward progressive and inclusive platforms, so much more needs to be done. Georgetown made a modern equivalent of $3.3 million dollars after the 1838 sale of its slaves. Is it really that much to ask to put at least some of that money back into educating and uplifting deserving black students?

For a college that charges its students an average of $50,000 a year for tuition, I think not—and neither does The New York Times. In April, the editorial board stated:

“Georgetown is morally obligated to adopt restorative measures, which should clearly include a scholarship fund for the descendants of those who were sold to save the institution.”

A working group has released a report advising the university on its plan to engage and reconcile with descendants of slaves. For more about the school’s history of slavery, you can review a repository of letters, photos, and more at the Georgetown Slavery Archive.

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