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Georgetown president is seeking to make amends for 1838 slave sale

Georgetown University. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia pledged a vigorous and wide-ranging effort to make amends for the Jesuit school’s role in the 1838 sale of 272 slaves.

“This is an important moment in the life of our university,” DeGioia said in a meeting with The Washington Post on Wednesday. He said that the university is studying a range of actions that it plans to unveil later this summer, part of an effort to address the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation for the nation as a whole and for Georgetown in particular.

“I don’t think putting a plaque on the wall is going to be an answer,” DeGioia said. Georgetown will no doubt install something tangible on the D.C. campus to memorialize the stain on its history. But it also is exploring other steps. Exactly what those will be remains to be seen.

DeGioia announced in February that the university is moving to expand its faculty in African American studies and establish a research center focused on racial injustice.

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The role of Georgetown’s early 19th century leadership in the slave trade has come under increasing scrutiny in the past two years, a time of racial unrest across the nation and of introspection and student activism at many colleges and universities.

In November, Georgetown announced that it was removing from two buildings the names of two of its 19th century presidents who organized or played an advisory role in the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves in Maryland to a Louisiana plantation to help the school pay off debts. A building once named for the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy has been temporarily renamed Freedom Hall. Another one named for the Rev. William McSherry has been temporarily dubbed Remembrance Hall.

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DeGioia said he recently received a draft report from the university’s “Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation,” a panel of administrators, faculty and students formed last year to study the issue. The proceeds from the 1838 sale were estimated to be about $3.5 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, he said.

He said the nation’s first Jesuit institution of higher education, founded in 1789, has long been dedicated to social justice. But now he wants it to be known for something more. “We have to deepen our commitment to racial justice,” he said.

DeGioia plans to travel to Louisiana next week to meet with descendants of the slaves to hear their views. Last week he met with another descendant, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, in Spokane, Wash.

President of Georgetown since 2001, DeGioia has spent four decades at the university as a student, faculty member and administrator. He said the modern university has known for years about the 1838 slave sale, but until recently it had not fully reckoned with the episode.

“We knew our history, but we had not appropriated it,” he said. “It was not alive in us.”

There were two evils in the 1838 actions, DeGioia said: The slave sale itself and the breakup of families. He said he hopes that now, generations later, Georgetown can play a role to help “re-knit” and “re-connect” families that were broken apart at the time.

Unlike other schools that have recently reviewed their ties to slavery — including Brown University, the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary — Georgetown has access to significant archival material about the 272 slaves. That will shape the university’s response, he said.

Asked whether he would consider the slaves’ descendants part of the Georgetown family, he said he did not want to make any assumptions about how the descendants themselves view their relationship to the school.

“That they would want to be considered means more to me than anything,” he said.