Last week, Georgetown’s president announced that it would apologize for the university’s role in the slave trade, give an admissions preference to descendants of the 272 slaves, name two buildings in honor of those enslaved people and create a memorial. Georgetown was responding to a report from a group of faculty members, staff, students and alumni that examined the university’s historical ties to slavery.
But leaders of the nearly 600 descendants who signed on to the GU272 statement said they asked to be included in that panel but were not — and they called on the university and the Jesuits to do more for the public good.
A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said in an email Thursday that they look forward to engaging with the group and learning more about their work.
At the announcement at Georgetown last week, John DeGioia, the president, thanked several descendants for their presence, and said, “Thank you for your trust and confidence in this institution that it might be able to be the kind of resource that you just described. We wouldn’t presume what we are capable of on our own. The opportunity to be able to find ways together to try to address some of the challenges that I tried to speak about and that you just spoke of, this is at the heart of what we were trying to be as a university.”
The descendants’ response added to the ongoing debate over how — and whether — institutions confront the legacy of slavery.
Student protests have escalated the urgency of the issue at some campuses, as have racial tensions nationally, and a growing number of schools are doing historical research, adding memorials and discussing slavery openly rather than relegating it to the past.
“We appreciate the gestures of a proposed memorial to our enslaved ancestors on Georgetown’s campus and President John DeGioia’s visits with some descendants, but recommendations developed without the meaningful participation of descendants can only be seen as preliminary,” Sandra Green Thomas, a descendant who helped develop the idea for the foundation, said in a statement Thursday.
“We viewed this as a prime opportunity for an institution that profited from slavery to join with the descendants of those enslaved to create a model for healing and redress in our nation,” Joseph Stewart, a lead organizer of the group, said in a statement. “Yet we firmly believe in the old saying that, ‘Nothing about us, without us.’ ”
Stewart, who at one time served as chairman of the board of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the country, said by phone Thursday morning that the group envisions a well-endowed foundation that would be of the highest caliber, a national leader in the issue of truth and reconciliation.
“The foundation can only be a reality if we can establish a partnership with Georgetown University,” he said. “The foundation is our vision of an opportunity for us to have a partnership with Georgetown University that can take the history that we all now know about and turn it into a greater common good for Georgetown, the Jesuits, the Catholic Church, and humans overall.
“Our vision is not about reparations. It’s not about getting anything that just benefits descendants. It’s about having an opportunity to have a common good.”
He said the specifics of the foundation’s goals should come in partnership with the university and the Jesuits. Another lead organizer, Richard Cellini, said they hope the $1 billion that it their goal would be raised from 10 to 15 institutions that benefited from long ties to slavery, and that ideally the money would be jointly managed and directed by Georgetown, the Jesuits and descendants.
Stewart praised university leaders. “What Georgetown did was step out and away on an issue that has just dragged our whole country and society backward. They have stepped out in front and said, ‘We need to openly deal with this.’ I want to commend them for that. But we want to work with them on a greater vision that’s not dependent on the day-to-day educational mission of Georgetown, a separate foundation that we all have a role in. … We can take that, use it in a positive way to do much better for all of God’s wonderful humanity.”
In DeGioia’s speech last week, he spoke of engaging with descendants in efforts moving forward, such as a recommendation by the panel to name scholarships in honor of people who were enslaved, and said school officials would continue to meet with descendants in their homes to discuss the report and future steps.
Mike Gabriele, a spokesman for the Maryland Province Jesuits, wrote in an email, “While the Maryland Province of Jesuits has indeed been asked to have a conversation with members of the GU272 and is open to doing so, along with Georgetown President John DeGioia, no formal specifics have been confirmed.”
Gabriele said the descendant group’s announcement “that mentions an expressed invitation with specific details of a partnership with the foundation is premature. The Maryland Province is eager to engage with descendants of the 272 enslaved individuals and committed to working with Georgetown on the goals articulated in the report from the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.”
Clarification: A headline on an earlier version of this story indicated that Georgetown University sold slaves in 1838. The 272 enslaved people were owned by the Maryland Jesuits, and two prominent Jesuits who served as president of Georgetown at the time orchestrated the sale for the benefit of Georgetown, to help pay down the school’s debt. Georgetown officials say the Jesuits sold the slaves, not the school, but acknowledge the school’s role in the sale and its profit.