Georgetown University pledged Thursday to apologize for its role in the slave trade and offered to give admissions preference to the descendants of those sold for the benefit of the school, one of the most aggressive responses to date among the universities trying to make amends for the horrors of slavery.
As descendants of people enslaved and sold listened, the school’s president promised to give their families a boost in admissions, treating applicants who are descendants of slaves owned by Maryland Jesuits the same as it would those who are children of faculty, staff and alumni. And it will name a university residence hall after one of the slaves, a man named Isaac. He was 65 in 1838 when he and 271 other slaves were sold.
Georgetown took the steps in response to a report from a panel of faculty, staff, students and alumni that examined the university’s ties to slavery, including the sale of men and women in the early 19th century that helped pay off debt at the Jesuit school.
Two priests who took turns as president of Georgetown in those years, the Rev. Thomas Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, orchestrated the 1838 sale, for a price of $115,000, or $3.3 million today, breaking families apart. Many ended up in Louisiana, “where they labored under dreadful conditions on cotton and sugar plantations,” some sold to the widow of a notorious slave trader, according to the report.
The episode has been known to scholars for decades. But it has drawn new attention in the past year amid an intensive dialogue about race relations on college campuses across the country.
Several people who trace their ancestry to the slaves sold came to Georgetown on Thursday to hear the university’s president, John J. DeGioia. “It is with deep gratitude and humility that I recognize your presence,” he told them. Members of the audience shot to their feet to echo him with a sustained ovation for the descendants.
Before the speech, some descendants wondered why they hadn’t been represented on the panel or invited to the speech — and what the university would do for, and with, their community going forward.
“Reconciliation can’t be one-sided,” said Sandra Green Thomas, 54, a descendant who lives in New Orleans. “Apologies are nice. But apologies without actions are a little meaningless.”
Melissa Kemp, 27, a descendant from Somerville, Mass., said she appreciated in theory the university’s action on admissions preference for slave descendants. But she worried about how many would reach Georgetown’s academic standards. “You’re dangling an apple a little too high for some of these students,” she said.
The 16-member panel, which DeGioia convened a year ago, said in its report that “a formal, spoken apology” would be appropriate “because its absence rings so loudly.”
The report and the university’s response drew emotional reactions from people who trace their lineage to those sold in 1838. Jessica Tilson, 34, a student at Southern University in Louisiana, was driving her mother to work Thursday when she got an email from Georgetown. She burst into tears, pulled into a gas station and told her mother. They cried together and talked about how they would tell Tilson’s 80-year-old grandfather.
“I love the idea,” Tilson said. “Especially the name of the buildings. Isaac is my sixth-great-grandfather. . . . When people name buildings after people, it shows how much you value them and respect them. . . . I’m speechless. There are no feelings in the world that can describe how that feels.”
Melisande Colomb, 62, a chef from New Orleans who traces her roots to people enslaved and sold to benefit Georgetown, said: “It’s a beginning. An apology is fine, and that’s nice. But what do we do with this American story?”
With the report, Georgetown joins a growing number of prominent colleges and universities that are giving new scrutiny to their various connections to the institution of slavery in America from Colonial times through the Civil War.
“What they’re doing is not in isolation,” said Kirt Von Daacke, co-chair of the University of Virginia’s commission on slavery and the university, who welcomed Georgetown’s efforts. “This is a story that, frankly, every university formed in the 19th century may have some connection to. . . . This is a national story.”
Brown University acknowledged its close ties to the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade in a groundbreaking 2006 report. U-Va.’s governing board voted in 2007 to express regret for the use of slaves. Georgetown, founded in 1789, is now revisiting its own deep entanglement with slavery.
DeGioia in recent months has reached out to descendants of slaves the Jesuits sold in a quest to make amends for the actions of his predecessors — 40 to 50 in all, he said.
On Thursday, DeGioia told students that the university must confront its past.
“This community participated in the institution of slavery,” he said. “This original evil that shaped the early years of the republic was present here.”
He said the university also must take steps to address racial inequities in American society today.
The report is a milestone for Georgetown, which, like many prominent colleges, was long an all-white bastion. Today about 6 percent of Georgetown’s 7,500 undergraduates are African American. Eight percent are Latino, 10 percent are Asian American and 4 percent are multiracial.
The panel’s report explores the relationship between Maryland Jesuits, slavery and the college. The Jesuits established plantations and began using slave labor on them about 1700.
Those plantations became an enduring source of financial support for Georgetown, the nation’s first Catholic college. The report notes that through the Civil War “the mood at the college was pro-slavery and ultimately pro-Confederacy.”
Preliminary research suggests that there were more slaves on Georgetown’s campus than previously thought, probably about 1 in every 10 people on campus in the early 19th century. Some were brought by students. Some were rented from slave owners.
Mulledy and McSherry organized the sale of 272 slaves to Louisiana businessmen while the former was college president and the latter held the title of superior of the Maryland Province of the Jesuits. The slaves were taken to various plantations in Louisiana. Many were then sold and resold.
The sale was controversial at the time. Jesuit authorities in Rome were initially inclined to support emancipation, the report said, and they imposed several conditions on any sale, including a mandate that slave families should not be divided.
That condition and others were not honored.
Until last year, Mulledy and McSherry were honored at Georgetown.
But even as the university revisited the slave sale, a movement emerged to improve the racial climate on campuses nationwide. Students at Georgetown held a sit-in outside DeGioia’s office in November to protest the Mulledy and McSherry building names and other issues.
Soon afterward, the university stripped the priests’ names from the buildings. Now the building once known as Mulledy Hall will be renamed Isaac Hall, honoring the first of the 272 slaves listed in documents of the 1838 sale. And what was once McSherry Hall will be renamed Anne Marie Becraft Hall, to honor a free woman of color. According to the report, she was “a trailblazing educator” with roots in the Georgetown neighborhood in the 19th century.
The university also plans to develop a public memorial to slaves and their families outside those halls. Names of each of those 272 people will be included in the memorial or inside the halls.
Read the panel’s report here: