The Iron in the Ivory Towers: Dealing with Georgetown’s legacies of enslavement

This post by Katarina Schwarz also features on the blog of the Re-presenting slavery: making a public usable past project.

Left: a statue of John Carroll, founder of Georgetown University sitting before Healy Hall on the college’s campus. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images. Right: the grave of Cornelius Hawkins, one of 272 slaves sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to help keep what is now Georgetown University afloat. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

Many universities and colleges benefitted from human enslavement and exploitation, and Georgetown University, Washington was no exception. What is exceptional about Georgetown’s case is how well documented those connections are, and now the nature of the attempt to reckon with them.

In 2015, Georgetown’s President John DeGioia convened a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to examine the university’s ties to slavery. The Panel released its report in 2016, with recommendations for the school including making amends for the 1838 sale of 272 slaves used to pay off school debts and avoid bankruptcy. Following this report, Georgetown pledged to apologise for its role in the slave trade, to commission a memorial to honour the 272 people sold, and to rename two university halls of residence originally named after the two school presidents that organised the 1938 sale. These are typical of the approaches generally taken by universities dealing with ties to enslavement. What is unique in Georgetown’s case, however, is the offer of admissions preference for the descendants of the 272 enslaved persons (the same preference given to children of alumni, faculty, and staff).

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Bill of sale dated June 19, 1838, stating: “Thomas F. Mulledy sells to Jesse Beatty and Henry Johnson two hundred and seventy two negroes, to wit.” The document outlined a payment plan, with discounts if the slaves turned out to be more infirm than described. Credit Maryland Province Archives at Lauinger Library at Georgetown University.

Beyond the now familiar critique of the university’s choice to address historical ties to slavery at all, is a debate specific to the Georgetown context, not concerned with whether institutions should grapple with these pasts, but with how they ought to do this. Ta-Nahesi Coates, author of one of the most influential reparations arguments published to date, has labelled the pledge ‘reparations’ even if the ‘scope’ of the measures remained ‘debateable’. Others have agreed with this classification, while also confirming their belief that the measures were inadequate, variably seeing the pledge as a meaningful start (at best) or self-serving and tokenistic (at worst).

The real world value of preferential admissions are challenged as potential beneficiaries still face the extreme financial hardships of attending Georgetown and the difficulties of reaching the university’s academic standards. When combining these factors with the extreme disadvantage suffered by many of the descendants (the very disadvantage the programme is designed to offset) the offer of preferential treatment becomes largely ineffectual. In the words of Melissa Kamp, one of the identified descendants of the Georgetown project, the proposal would be “dangling an apple a little too high for some of the students”. Like many others, Kamp worried that the inequalities preventing descendants from being able to enjoy the preference were not being addressed. Tressie McMillan Cottom claims these shortcomings are so significant that the measures cannot be considered as reparations at all. For McMillam Cottom, reparations require acknowledgement, specific restitution, and closure, of which only the first component is satisfied by Georgetown’s promise.

To address the financial shortcomings of the existing proposal, a number of the descendants have now joined together, seeking to establish a $1 billion foundation in partnership with the university and Maryland Jesuits. These descendants have already raised the symbolic figure of $115,000 (the 1838 sale price for the 272 enslaved persons) and are calling upon Georgetown to contribute to make reparations meaningful and accessible. Whether Georgetown will ‘put its money where its mouth is’ remains unclear. What is clear is that something more than the current proposal is necessary if the institution hopes to make a practical difference to the lives of the descendants and provide specific redress for its past actions.

Left: Descendants of slaves (left to right) Sandra Green Thomas, Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, Zeita Kemp, Melissa Kemp and Karran Harper Royal speak at Georgetown University on Sept. 1. Credit Linda Davidson for The Washington Post. Right: Joseph M. Stewart and Patricia Bayonne-Johnson, descendants of slaves sold to benefit the university. Mr. Stewart said descendants should be more involved in decision making. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times.

The creation of this foundation seeks to address another issue with the current actions of the university: the lack of inclusion of the descendants in the processes which led to Georgetown’s pledge. As Sandra Green Thomas told the Washington Post: “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”. Like many institutions undergoing similar processes, Georgetown failed to open its walls to the people with whom it was attempting to reconcile, undermining the meaningfulness of the ultimate conclusions. For their part, the Working Group (and De Gioia) have acknowledged that they were only starting out on dealing with Georgetown’s past, and that consultation with descendants would be an integral part in the future processes. Whether this occurs remains to be seen.

Exactly where Georgetown will now go with its proposals to deal with its historical ties to the institution of chattel enslavement remain unclear. However, what has become clear from the dialogue surrounding Georgetown’s approach is that the discussion is beginning to progress beyond arguments over whether or not these histories matter. The conversation is expanding to cover the forms redress should take and processes through which universities should address a past that is not only theirs.

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