Georgetown University will rename two buildings named for school presidents who organized the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves to help pay off campus debt in the 1830s, the university’s president announced.
McSherry Hall, which houses a meditation center and was named for another university president who served as an adviser on the slave sale, will be called Remembrance Hall until it is renamed.
In a letter e-mailed to the Georgetown community Saturday evening, President John J. DeGioia said he was changing the names based on a recommendation he received Friday from his Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. DeGioia appointed the panel of 16 administrators, faculty and students in September to examine slavery-related sites on campus.
“As a university,” DeGioia wrote, “we are a place where conversations are convened and dialogue is encouraged, even on topics that may be difficult.”
The announcement came amid weeks of heightened racial tensions at some U.S. universities, including a demonstration Thursday in Georgetown’s Red Square. A reported 250 Georgetown students and other activists gathered to show solidarity with students protesting the failure of administrators at the University of Missouri and Yale University to take complaints about racism and racial incidents on their campuses seriously.
At the Georgetown demonstration, student leaders announced a sit-in outside DeGioia’s office Friday morning to protest the two building names. About 50 people sat outside DeGioia’s office at the peak of the sit-in Friday afternoon, doing homework on their laptops and eating pizza sent by supportive alumni, organizers said.
Queen Adesuyi, a Georgetown senior who helped organize the demonstration and sit-in, said activists “used the momentum” from student protests on other campuses to build support for the name changes. She said many protesters, who first called for the name change in August, believed DeGioia had appointed the working group to pacify them while stalling on a decision.
“We recognized we can’t be complacent anymore,” said Adesuyi, who is from the Bronx. “The fact that the sale [of slaves] helped Georgetown to be the prestigious school it is now is an important part of our history that’s important to recognize. It’s a history not being told.”
As communities across the country debate the future of monuments and flags commemorating the Confederacy, universities have begun taking closer looks at their own histories. Brown University became an early leader in 2006, when a panel appointed by Brown’s president found that the school had benefited from the slave trade. In 2007, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors formally expressed regret for the fact that slaves had helped build the Rotunda and other buildings.
In his book “Ebony & Ivy,” Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes about numerous other universities, including Harvard University and Dartmouth College, where slaves were owned by university presidents or served faculty and students.
At Georgetown, most students learned about the slavery ties of the Mulledy Hall name in August, when DeGioia wrote to students that the building, which had been vacant for a decade, was being reopened as a newly renovated dorm. The building also had been known as “FJR,” or the “Former Jesuit Residence.”
DeGioia noted that the building had been named for former president Thomas F. Mulledy, a Jesuit priest who, after stepping down as university president, had organized the sale of 272 slaves owned by the Society of Jesus in Maryland. DeGioia wrote that he would soon appoint a panel to examine Mulledy’s and the university’s role in slavery.
David J. Collins, a Jesuit priest and Georgetown history professor who chaired the working group, said Mulledy used the proceeds from the slave sale to pay off debt the university had incurred from new building. He said the sale was controversial because some Jesuits at the time believed the slaves should have been freed, and Mulledy ignored instructions from church officials to keep slave families together.
William McSherry, another former university president, also had sold off some Jesuit-owned slaves before Mulledy’s larger sale and advised Mulledy in the 1838 sale, Collins said.
Collins, who teaches Jesuit history to Jesuits in training, said other priests and administrators had spoken to him over the past couple of years about how the university should handle Mulledy’s ties to slavery. He said the issue gained traction after DeGioia raised it in his August letter.
Collins said the working group came to “an easy consensus” that the building names should be changed. He said the panel will continue to discuss how the university should mark its role in slavery.
“We want people to think broadly and thoughtfully about how we want to memorialize this chapter in our history,” he said.
The student activists say they also want the university to pay reparations by establishing an endowment that, accounting for inflation, would match what the university made from the slave sale. The money, they said, should provide scholarships or a professorship based on race issues.
Some student activists also say Mulledy Hall’s new name should reflect their social media hashtag: “BuiltOn272.”
“A lot of folks don’t think we should be honoring someone who sold people,” said Crystal Walker, a Georgetown senior from Oklahoma City who demonstrated and served on the working group. “The name should honor them.”