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At Georgetown University, a family reunion 178 years after fateful slave sale

Slave descendant Joseph Stewart (with other descendants behind him) speaks to Georgetown University President John DeGioia on Sept. 1 as the school announces steps it will take to atone for its role in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Georgetown University witnessed a most unusual family reunion Thursday afternoon, 178 years after a fateful breakup.

The university had just pledged to apologize for its role in slavery, especially for benefiting from the sale of 272 Jesuit-owned slaves in 1838. That sale, brokered by two priests who were Georgetown presidents, sundered Maryland families, shipping enslaved men, women and children to Louisiana. It also produced cash to help pay off debts at the Catholic university in the nation’s capital.

Georgetown University released a report in 2016 with recommendations on how the university should make amends for the 1838 sale of 272 slaves to pay a debt. (Video: Georgetown University)

Georgetown plans to apologize for its role in slavery

University President John J. DeGioia, in a speech Thursday on campus at Gaston Hall, had also pledged that Georgetown would give special attention in admissions to descendants of those slaves, just as it does with applicants who are children of alumni, faculty and staff. And he had outlined several other steps in an agenda of reconciliation, such as creating a memorial to the slaves on campus, renaming a building for one of them, renaming another edifice for a free woman of color from the 19th century and developing scholarship to address some of the most pressing racial inequities in today’s society.

After the speech, DeGioia was fielding questions from the audience when a man stood up and asked if he could join him in front of the crowd. DeGioia assented.

The man walked up to Georgetown’s leader, followed by several women. He introduced himself as Joseph Stewart and said that he was a descendant of one of the 272 slaves sold to benefit Georgetown. The women were also descendants.

Stewart, from Battle Creek, Mich., told DeGioia that his speech was fine as far as it went. But he noted that the community of descendants had no representatives on the working group of faculty, students, staff and alumni that had examined the issue. Nor had the community been consulted much, if at all, about the steps Georgetown was announcing. Stewart said that had to change.

“We want a partnership,” he said. He said the people he knew among descendants were not interested in conflict or in reparations. But they wanted to be included in the university’s deliberations. “Our attitude is, nothing about us without us,” he said.

Descendants respond to Georgetown’s efforts to confront the legacy of slavery

Karran Harper Royal, a descendant from Louisiana, then took the microphone and read aloud a one-page “Declaration of GU272 Descendants.” It asserted a family connection between the community and the university that took advantage of the plight of the slaves 178 years ago. It estimated that the 272 enslaved people now had 10,000 descendants worldwide. “Our ancestors did not perish in Louisiana!” it proclaimed. “They flourished!”

“We are determined to turn the insistent survival of our ancestors into an unwavering commitment within the entire Georgetown family,” the declaration said, “a commitment to promote and facilitate a safe and effective pathway to a common good for our family, our country and our humanity.”

DeGioia, who seemed moved by the moment, thanked the group and said the university would consult closely with descendants going forward on matters large and small related to reconciliation. “We wouldn’t presume what we are capable of on our own,” he said.

Here’s a picture of the declaration: