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Georgetown students vote in favor of reparations for enslaved people

Georgetown students voted April 11, 2019, to pay a fee benefiting the descendants of enslaved people who were sold to pay off the school's debts. (Video: WUSA9)

Georgetown University students voted overwhelmingly for a proposal to create a fund to help descendants of the enslaved people sold in the 19th century at a time when the school struggled to pay off debts, results released Friday show.

Two-thirds of undergraduate students who voted in the student government referendum supported the measure, one that is not binding but still sends a message to university administrators and beyond.

Georgetown students vote on reparations for the descendants of slaves

The vote comes at a time when reparations have been an issue nationally, promoted by some Democratic presidential candidates, and as a growing number of universities are exploring the role of slavery at their institutions.

Student activists who came up with the idea and campaigned for it gathered early Friday, waiting for vote results to be announced on social media by student government leaders. They were holding their phones, and Karla Leyja, a senior who had pushed for the measure, suddenly saw everyone jumping up and down, cheering and hugging. She felt proud, she said. “We did succeed in our mission to get students to talk about this and care about it,” Leyja said. “It felt incredible.”

“It was just like a bolt of joy,” said Ethan Clark, a first-year student who is a descendant of an enslaved person who was part of that sale and who helped organize the effort supporting the measure.

Thomas Craemer, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut, said he does not know of other examples of members of a U.S. organization taking it upon themselves to pay reparations to the direct descendants of the enslaved.

Student activists said they hope members of Georgetown’s board of directors will discuss the measure at their spring meeting.

“As students at an elite institution, we recognize the great privileges we have been given, and wish to at least partially repay our debts to those families whose involuntary sacrifices made these privileges possible,” the sponsors wrote in the measure. “As individuals with moral imagination, we choose to do more than simply recognize the past — we resolve to change our future.”

The measure was endorsed by 2,541 students and proposes a fee, starting with $27.20 per student for the fall 2020 semester, that would raise an estimated $400,000. The student fee would increase with inflation and would fund a nonprofit led by a board of students and descendants, who would give money to charitable causes directly benefiting descendants of the 19th-century sale.

One-third of students who voted — 1,304 — opposed the measure, with some objecting to students paying for the university’s actions, and some disagreeing with the idea of reparations for past wrongs.

Student government leaders welcomed the measure, saying it represented a meaningful step forward in atoning for the university’s legacy of slavery.

If the measure advances with approval from the university’s board, it would put Georgetown on the right side of history, Georgetown University Student Association President Norman Francis Jr. and Vice President Aleida Olvera wrote in a statement early Friday announcing the results.

Georgetown plans to apologize for its role in slavery

The university has been exploring lesser-known aspects of its history, including the legacy of slavery at the institution. A 19th century sale of 272 enslaved men, women and children — which helped the school resolve pressing debts but which separated families and subjected people to grueling conditions on Southern plantations — has come to symbolize both the horrors of slavery and the choices universities face in confronting their legacies. Georgetown’s leaders apologized for the past and took steps to right historical wrongs.

Some students contend school officials have not done enough. The measure was an attempt to ensure that some efforts to address transgressions from the past directly benefit descendants of that 1838 sale.

‘Make it right’: Descendants of slaves demand restitution from Georgetown

Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs at Georgetown, said in a written statement: “Our students are contributing to an important national conversation and we share their commitment to addressing Georgetown’s history with slavery.

“We understand that the goals of the student referendum are to honor the 272 enslaved individuals sold by the Maryland Jesuits in 1838 and to advance ‘causes and proposals that directly benefit descendants still residing in underprivileged communities.’ ”

Craemer, who worked with a group of descendants to calculate their request for restitution, said he believes reparations are warranted because forced labor created wealth for others. “The descendants of the people that actually did the hard work are excluded from that inheritance,” he said. “It’s a present-day injustice.”

Craemer said he was impressed by the student initiative, and touched by it. “I hope it will put moral pressure on the administration to follow suit and also the alumni community,” to donate to descendants, he said.

Others objected to the idea. Two students, in an opinion piece that ran in the student newspaper the Hoya, criticized the idea of a “mandatory fee which, by nature, represents a moral judgment on the responsibility of Georgetown students for the institution’s past. It contradicts that very value of liberty. Students would be compelled to act rather than having the choice to opt in.”

The two authors, Rizana Tatlock and Henry Dai, suggested other ways to help, such as a fund drive that could actively engage students, rather than requiring a passive collection of fees. “Those who are not convinced by arguments for reparative justice will not be any more accepting after being dragged, kicking and screaming, into submission,” they wrote.

Hunter Estes, a senior at Georgetown, said he thought the measure was too vague, with not enough legal and financial understanding of how to manage a fund of $400,000 per year. He said many people did not consider the details. “A false dichotomy was created: You were either for the descendants of the GU272 or you were against them,” he said, using a shorthand reference to the 272 enslaved people sold in 1838.

He said students had created momentum for the idea of a greater commitment from Georgetown. “This could be an energizer,” he said.