GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY has issued a long-anticipated report on what it should do to reconcile the Catholic institution to its historical ties to slavery. The university is taking several steps immediately, notably giving preferential status in admissions to descendants of enslaved people whose labor benefited Georgetown, which is a move in the right direction and a sign of the school’s sincerity. But those are first steps only; as the university acknowledges, more will be needed.
Georgetown President John J. DeGioia on Thursday released the report and recommendations of a working group that for the past year has been studying the university’s involvement in slavery, including the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 by Jesuits who used the proceeds to keep the school afloat even as they knew they were doing wrong in tearing families apart. From the start, the group wrote, it faced a “daunting challenge”: On one hand, nothing could justify the very great harm done over an extended period of time to people reduced to chattel for Georgetown’s profit; on the other hand, both the perpetrators and victims of these offenses are long dead, so there is no obvious way to seek or offer forgiveness.
Aiming to strike the right balance, Mr. DeGioia said that Georgetown will give descendants of those enslaved people the same admissions boost accorded to children of faculty, staff and alumni; offer an apology for its role in slavery; rename two campus buildings, in honor of one of the slaves sold in 1838 and of a free woman of color who founded a school for black girls in Georgetown in 1827; create an institution for the study of slavery; and build a memorial to those who were enslaved. Mr. DeGioia also mentioned less concrete plans to address disparities in housing and access to health care in the District and to identify new ways to enhance access and opportunity for those wanting to go to college.
Widening college access is particularly critical; we hope Georgetown lives up to its promise to engage and collaborate with slave descendants, some of whom were unhappy with exclusion from the working group.
While other universities have had to confront their roles in slavery, Georgetown is unique in that the meticulous records kept by the Jesuits and the fact that the slaves continued to practice their Catholic faith have allowed genealogists to identify and locate their descendants. These are real people whose fates have been affected: That presents Georgetown with both a burden and an opportunity.
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