Georgetown University’s attempt to understand and atone for its deep involvement with slavery links the Jesuit school with a line of others that have undertaken similar journeys in the past decade to uncover painful episodes of their history.
The rising influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in higher education in the past two years has brought new urgency to questions about slavery and its connections to colleges founded in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I think in the coming year or two, one can say safely that wherever these issues have not been tackled, they will reoccur,” said Barrymore A. Bogues, director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “I don’t think there’s a way around that. I expect to see – where issues have not been tackled, where questions of diversity of faculty and students have not been given serious consideration, you’re going to see more activity.”
Scholars at some schools that have confronted this issue praised Georgetown’s efforts to make amends for profiting from the sale of 272 Jesuit-owned slaves in 1838, including a plan to make a formal apology for its role in the slave trade. Two priests who served as president of Georgetown during that era orchestrated the sale.
The incumbent president, John J. DeGioia, pledged Thursday to engage with slave descendants, offer them admissions preference to the highly selective school, create a memorial to their enslaved ancestors and launch an institute to study slavery and its legacies, among other measures.
“What’s crucial is that they’re not just apologizing – which is the first step of recognition of a historical wrong – but they’re also thinking about a set of steps,” said Bogues, a professor of humanities and critical theory at Brown. “I think they’re on the right track, absolutely. Then you take a set of steps to make that apology real and concrete. The key in all of these things is, quite frankly, implementation.”
Brown helped pioneer higher education’s reckoning with slavery in 2006 with the release of a landmark report that documented how some of its founders and benefactors participated in the 18th-century transatlantic slave trade, reaping profits that helped the Ivy League school in Rhode Island in its nascent years.
At the time, Brown pledged to take several measures to help ensure that the school’s connections to slavery would not be forgotten, to foster scholarship in the field and to support schools in Providence. It followed through. In the 2012-2013 school year, Brown opened the center that Bogues now leads. In 2014, it dedicated the Slavery Memorial, a work by sculptor Martin Puryear that depicts a ball of cast iron submerged in the earth and a broken chain.
Here is the Brown report:
The University of Virginia underwent a similar exercise in introspection over a period of several years. In 2007, U-Va.’s governing board approved a resolution expressing regret for the university’s use of slaves in its early years. U-Va. was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and Founding Father who famously owned slaves himself.
But many in Charlottesville believed that the 2007 action was insufficient. Last year, the university opened a new dorm that honors a 19th-century man who was enslaved by U-Va. professors for a portion of his life. Gibbons Hall is named for the Rev. William Gibbons, a one-time butler to slave masters on the Lawn at U-Va. who lived to see emancipation and became an influential religious leader in Washington, D.C.
More efforts are continuing at U-Va. through a commission on slavery that the university formed in 2013. It expects to present recommendations next year to President Teresa A. Sullivan. U-Va. is also part of the group Universities Studying Slavery, which includes several schools from Virginia and elsewhere in the South. Among them are the College of William & Mary, Washington & Lee University, and the universities of North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi. Georgetown has also joined the group.
“This is a story that, frankly, every university formed in the 19th century may have some connection to,” said Kirt Von Daacke, co-chair of the U-Va. commission. “Brown found the very endowments used to create their institution were often intimately tied to the trade of enslaved people, and universities in the South know the wealth of slaveholders helped build their universities. . . . Any time you’re talking about universities and slavery – this is a national story.”
But the details of that story vary widely from school to school.
In March at Harvard University, the law school’s dean endorsed retiring the school’s famous symbolic shield because it was based on the family crest of an 18th-century slaveholder named Isaac Royall Jr.
Yale University has debated whether to rename one of its residential colleges, Calhoun College, which is named after a U.S. vice president and senator from South Carolina in the 19th century who staunchly defended slavery. John C. Calhoun was also a graduate of Yale.
In April, Yale President Peter Salovey said Calhoun’s name would remain on the college as part of an effort to encourage the campus community to confront the history of slavery, a decision that drew criticism. On Aug. 1, Salovey announced the creation of a committee to establish principles on renaming, and he suggested that the university could reopen the question of the name of Calhoun College at a later point.
At Washington & Lee, a school named for the first U.S. president and a leading Confederate general, questions about ties to slavery arose in 2014 as the university was studying what to do with a display of rebel battle flags in its chapel.
The university decided to remove the flags from the chapel’s main chamber, and it issued a statement of contrition for its ownership and use of 70 to 80 slaves before the Civil War. It benefited from the sale of some of them. “We acknowledge that this was a regrettable chapter of our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter,” the university’s president, Kenneth P. Ruscio, wrote.
At Sweet Briar College in Virginia, when Lynn Rainville joined the faculty in 2001, she said the history that most people knew was of the white family that owned the plantation, which was a founding gift and forms the sprawling campus. There wasn’t much interest in all the other families who had lived and worked there. A small slave cabin next to the president’s house, for example, was used for an exhibit of farm tools. “No one was talking about slavery at Sweet Briar – absolutely not,” she said.
“That has changed, and that continues to change.” But slavery is complicated, she said.
“Everyone in higher education knows that dealing with your slave past might raise the question of reparations. It might raise the question of better access for African American students today. . . .There are certainly people who would prefer to always focus on what they would view as a positive side to this story.”
Rainville found records of the 150 or so slaves Elijah Fletcher owned at the time of his death. There are thousands of descendants, and she believes a quarter to a third of the hourly-wage workers at the college come from those same families. She helped raise money to restore the 1840s slave cabin – one of a dozen or two that were originally on the grounds – just by the president’s house, which holds some of the original furniture, and now houses an exhibit on African American history at Sweet Briar. She is writing a history about those “invisible founders.” Descendants of some of the enslaved people – who have the same surname as the white founding family – have held family reunions on campus.
She admires schools that have started the tough conversations, as Georgetown has done.
“Why have we not solved this – why have we not come up with a way to atone for the sins of our white ancestors in the 19th century? The answer is it’s so bloody complicated. This is just the starting of a much larger conversation.”
Another school that recently delved into slavery issues has a direct connection to the Georgetown story. The College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Massachusetts, was founded in the 1840s. Its first president was the Rev. Thomas Mulledy, who had been one of the Georgetown presidents responsible for the 1838 slave sale.
Like Georgetown until recently, Holy Cross honored Mulledy with a building on campus named for him. Last year, Georgetown stripped Mulledy’s name from a residence hall after concluding that it was no longer an appropriate recognition.
But Holy Cross took a slightly different approach: In June, it added another name to the building in question. What was once Mulledy Hall on the Worcester campus is now Brooks-Mulledy Hall. The addition recognizes a 20th-century president, the Rev. John E. Brooks, who recruited African Americans in the 1960s to help integrate the campus.
A Holy Cross committee that examined the Mulledy issue acknowledged that interpretations of a college’s history can change dramatically over time.
“Our history is, in some ways, a living thing, an ongoing process of reception and interpretation,” the committee wrote. “It is important that we tell that story over and over in a community that is always welcoming new members, and that we tell it accurately. The act of remembering sometimes demands that the College community face painful and unjust moments in its history. We look back on the story of Holy Cross with new insights into our mission and identity and recognize injustices with greater clarity.”