Georgetown University, having sold enslaved black people in the 19th century, has come up with another perverse transaction: offering descendants of those enslaved people an apology and preferential admissions as part of an atonement package.
“We provide care and respect for the members of the Georgetown community: faculty, staff, alumni, those with an enduring relationship with Georgetown,” University President John DeGioia said last week. “We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants.”
The same? As if a legacy of slave labor in the making of Georgetown was the same as a legacy of freedom to enroll in the school? Working under the lash without pay and meager rations the same as earning a diploma and getting a good-paying job? Being sold down the river to even more brutal slave camps and families torn apart, the same as having the means to buy a house, support a family and pave the way for the next generation?
Underestimating the impact of slavery and glossing over the horrors undermines whatever good intention the university has in mind.
“First, let’s make short work of the question of whether the slaves and their descendants are ‘members of the Georgetown family,’ ” Maxine Crump, a descendant, and Richard J. Cellini, founder of the Georgetown Memory Project, wrote in the Washington Post. “The Maryland Jesuits themselves called the slaves and their children ‘the family.’ ”
And the slaves and slave owners lived happily ever after.
Such distortions are recipes for resentment, not reconciliation.
Last year, DeGioia appointed a Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation to come up with ways to make amends for the school’s role in the 1838 sale of 272 slaves. Of the 16 members on the panel, not one was a slave descendant.
“We want a partnership,” Joseph Stewart, one of the descendants, told DeGioia last week. “Our attitude is, ‘nothing about us without us.’ ”
DeGioia had just given a speech announcing the working group’s recommendations when Stewart confronted him.
There would be an apology, memorial and “legacy” admissions. But does the university really understand why the amends are being made? Or anything about the people supposedly being honored?
This goes for well-meaning students, too.
Some student activists have called for the university to pay reparations by establishing an endowment that would match what the university made from the slave sale. In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $3.3 million.
The money, they said, should provide scholarships or a professorship.
But that pittance hardly makes up for the pain and suffering endured by those families. Nor does it come close to the enormous financial benefits to Georgetown, which enjoys an endowment of more than $1 billion.
The school could raise that 3 million with a couple of phone calls to their corporate donors — some of which no doubt also have connections to the slave trade.
But that doesn’t mean the black students shouldn’t have a say. Many of them — about 90 percent of African Americans — are also descendants of enslaved people.
The students’ proposal for reparations was rejected — but for the wrong reasons.
“Let’s also rebut any suggestion that many descendants seek involuntary reparations,” Crump and Cellini wrote. “Not a single descendant reached so far has asked for any such thing. They seek reconciliation and reunion, not reparations.”
But there are thousands of descendants who have not been reached. And it’s not inconceivable to think that some of them might be more interested in reparations than some reunion.
Other universities also are wrangling with the legacy of slavery — but mostly as it relates to their own institutions. The result so far has been to create a picture of slavery as small, scattered groups of unpaid farm workers. Such a limited view makes atonement easy.
Change the name of a building, put up a plaque, set aside a day to talk about it.
Better that these schools pooled their political and economic resources to pressure Congress into passing a bill, sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), that establishes a commission to examine the impact of slavery and study proposals for reparations.
Get the facts about the scope and breadth of one of the most diabolical institutions ever devised. Otherwise, apologies and amends will be made without knowing to whom or for what.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.