The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgetown has a plan to help descendants of enslaved people. Student activists say they’re missing the point.

Protesting Georgetown University students in October called on the school to implement a student fee to pay for reparations to the descendants of enslaved people sold by the university in the 19th century. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Student activists have worked for months to promote the idea of reparations at Georgetown University. But when the school’s president announced plans this week to redress a historical wrong, activists said it came as a surprise — an unwelcome one, because it was different from a plan undergraduates had conceived and overwhelmingly endorsed in the spring.

John J. DeGioia, Georgetown’s president, announced Tuesday the school would fund community-based projects to help descendants of the enslaved people who were sold in the early 19th century to pay off debts at the school. The university will ensure $400,000 or more a year in donations are collected to underwrite the effort. The specific initiatives are not yet known, but school officials said they would look for projects with long-term benefit such as health care or early-childhood education.

The university’s plans “directly negate the wishes” of students who had voted for reparations, the activist group Students for GU272 said in a statement.

“I think they just decided to ignore our vote,” said Maya Moretta, a junior who is a member of the group that advocated for reparations for the 272 enslaved people sold in 1838, because the university plans to raise private money for the effort, rather than relying on student fees.

Georgetown officials said many positive responses have arrived from students, graduates and faculty to the plan put forth by the university. But Students for GU272 said in a written statement that the plan announced by DeGioia “was made without student or descendant input” and undermines the efforts and wishes of students who voted on the issue.

An undergraduate referendum in April called on Georgetown to create a fund to help descendants, with two-thirds of the undergraduates who voted supporting the detailed proposal. The students’ plan called for a mandatory student fee starting at $27.20 per semester — later increasing with inflation — to underwrite a nonprofit that would give money to charitable causes benefiting descendants.

The nonbinding vote was opposed by some students who disagreed that undergraduates owe a debt to people generations after institutional leaders made the sale, and some argued it would place an unfair burden on students already struggling to afford the private college.

But with more than 2,500 students voting in favor of the idea, and with reparations a campaign platform for some Democratic presidential candidates, the referendum drew national attention.

The Jesuit school, like many universities in recent years, had already been confronting the legacy of slavery. School officials renamed buildings that had honored early presidents of Georgetown — two Jesuit priests — who orchestrated the 1838 sale of 272 men, women and children to plantations in Louisiana. The school renamed one building for a man who was enslaved.

University leaders have been talking and meeting with some of the thousands of descendants and offered an admissions advantage to descendants. In 2017, they held a religious ceremony apologizing for Georgetown’s role in the slave trade. It’s part of what university officials say is a long-term commitment to the issue.

But as time passed, student activists grew weary of waiting for the school to take action.

In October, Students for GU272, which includes direct descendants, protested the administration’s inaction, chanting, “Respect our vote! Respect our vote!” outside a meeting of the school’s board of directors.

Georgetown plans projects to benefit descendants of enslaved people sold to pay its debts

DeGioia said in his letter to campus Tuesday that university leaders “embrace the spirit of this student proposal” and that the plans being announced would provide opportunities for student leadership.

The money would be raised through fundraising, allowing a broader swath of the university community to participate, school officials said.

Student activists said raising money rather than imposing a student fee would hinder the cultivation of a relationship between students and descendants and change the nature of the project.

“This transforms the fund that was intended to repay a debt that Georgetown has owed for over 400 years into a philanthropy effort,” the group wrote in its statement.

The goal has been reconciliation, Moretta said by phone. “It’s not a choice. It’s not a charitable donation. It’s not philanthropy,” she said.

“We are paying back a debt. We’re not giving descendants something just because we want to. We’re not giving them something to make ourselves feel better. … We’re giving it to them because we owe them a debt.”

Georgetown students protest, demanding action on reparations for descendants of enslaved people

The group’s statement criticized the university’s plan as having “no clear criteria, accountability measures, or transparency with regards to construction or implementation.”

University spokeswoman McKenzie Stough said in an emailed statement that administrators respect the range of opinions on these issues and have been engaged with descendants, students and the campus community the past four years. These next steps in Georgetown’s work on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation will be an inclusive process that builds upon the ideas of the student Referendum,” she said.

“We are looking forward to engaging in continued dialogue with the Descendant, alumni, and campus communities, including with our students, to continue to move forward on this important work confronting our history. With this new framework, we look forward to taking actionable steps in this endeavor in the coming months.”