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Georgetown University plans a religious ceremony as an apology for its historical ties to slavery

Georgetown University. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Georgetown University will hold a religious ceremony in April, timed to the city’s Emancipation Day, as an apology for its historical ties to the slave trade, university officials announced Friday.

In September, the school took steps to acknowledge its role, including giving an admissions preference to the descendants of people enslaved by the Maryland Jesuits, and renaming two buildings on campus. Those halls had been named for Jesuit leaders who orchestrated the sale of 272 slaves that helped pay off a debt at the school.

Georgetown will give admissions preference to the descendants of people enslaved by Maryland Jesuits

It was one of the most dramatic efforts by a university to make amends for slavery, at a time when increasing numbers of schools are delving into the past.

Georgetown joins Brown, U-Va. and others in looking anew at slavery

It also prompted calls from some descendants for a reconciliation fund.

Descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown’s leaders call for a $1 billion foundation for reconciliation

In 2015, Georgetown’s president, John DeGioia, asked a working group to make recommendations about how best to recognize the university’s ties to slavery. Since then, there have been numerous events such as forums, musical performances, meetings with descendants in their homes and at cemeteries, and ongoing research into the issue.

At 10 a.m. April 18, Georgetown, with the Archdiocese of Washington and the Society of Jesus in the United States, will hold “a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” on campus. At noon, the university will formally rename one hall in honor of Isaac Hawkins, the first slave listed on the 1838 sale documents, and another in honor of Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman who founded a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood in the early 1800s.

“It really is intended to make sure that we remember this part of the university’s history,” said James Benton, who is doing postdoctoral research as the slavery, memory and reconciliation fellow for Georgetown. He expects an annual commemoration around the time of Emancipation Day, which marks the date when enslaved people were freed in the District. “It’s been a pretty interesting process in the last year or so of the descendants and Georgetown getting to know each other. I would expect this to be another step in that process. We’re all coming to terms with the significance of the events of 1838. As we’re trying to find a way to move forward, we’re all learning a little more about each other.”

This post was updated to reflect that Georgetown does not plan a formal Mass but a religious Catholic ceremony.