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Georgetown University tries to make amends for profiting from slavery

September 1, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Georgetown University is taking an unprecedented step to respond to and apologize for its ties to slavery. The university will give special preference to applicants who are descendants of Georgetown’s slaves, plans to rename a building in honor of one of the slaves and will create an institute to study slavery. For greater context, Hari Sreenivasan speaks with the MIT’s Craig Steven Wilder.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In recent years, a number of prestigious colleges and universities have had to acknowledge their past ties and history to slavery in the U.S.

Today, Georgetown University became the latest to say it will apologize for its past and take new steps. More than 200 years ago, the original Georgetown College operated plantations in Maryland that worked with slave labor. Then, in 1838, facing deep debt, a pair of priests who each served as president of Georgetown sold 272 people to help pay the bills. The slaves were sent to plantations in Louisiana.

To help atone for its past, the university announced it would give a special preference in admissions to applicants who are descendants of Georgetown’s slaves. It’s also renaming a building in honor of one of the slaves, erecting a public memorial, and creating an institute to study slavery and its legacy.

University president John DeGioia spoke at a news conference today.

JOHN DEGIOIA, President, Georgetown University: So many were surprised, even shocked, by the revelation of Jesuit slaveholding and the benefit we received from the 1830 sale.

As a community and as individuals, we cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history. We must acknowledge it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For a closer look at this, I’m joined from New York by Craig Steven Wilder. He’s a professor of American history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”

Mr. Wilder, put this in context for us. How crucial was this transaction of people to keep Georgetown alive?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: You know, in 1838, Georgetown sold — the president of Georgetown helped negotiate the sale of about 272 people to Louisiana.

And from what we understand, about 15 to 20 percent of the money, the proceeds, actually was used to pay down Georgetown’s debts. And so I think it’s actually quite crucial to the continued survival of the university.

This is about the time that the university imposed tuition for the first time. And so it was helping to meet a number of financial needs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about your thoughts on the university’s actions today?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I thought that the report was thorough and quite thoughtful, but the real meaning of the report — I’m cautiously optimistic — I think the real meaning of the report will get revealed over the next several years and decades, as we see Georgetown implement these promises.

And it will depend upon how fully those get institutionalized on the campus, and so that we can actually see them really get achieved.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how — today, there was a clause in there about admissions preference. Explain that.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, I think what they’re doing is, they’re looking at the descendants of the 272 people who were sold in 1838, and seeking to bring them to campus and to give them preferential admission to Georgetown, actually like a lot of populations of students do.

For instance, the children of alumni often get preferential treatment in admissions. And so this would extend that to the children of the people sold — or the descendants of the people sold in 1838.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How does this compare to what other schools are doing these days?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: That step is actually — takes the response to slavery further than any other institution has gone.

The other actions inside the report actually are fairly similar to what other institutions have done, for instance, the renaming of two of the buildings on the Georgetown campus, the decision to create a memorial to slavery on the campus, and the decision to establish an institute for the study of slavery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the dangers is that this almost creates a checklist for a university that says, OK, fine, I have got a memorial, check. I’m going to do this, check. But that long-lasting change you’re talking about, that could take years to get through the student body and the entire campus.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: And I think that’s the key to this.

A report does not bring closure to the story of Georgetown’s relationship to slavery. What will ultimately begin to, I hope, heal and repair the relationship between Georgetown, the Catholic Church and the descendants of the people sold in 1838 will be, in fact, Georgetown fulfilling these commitments in a really quite holistic way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And does this blaze the trail for other universities, considering that there are already some that are tackling this?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think it does.

I think that what you will see is, in fact, a continued conversation about the legacies of slavery on our campuses, and also the thing that’s actually has kept much of this discussion alive for the past several years, student activism on campus, which has, in fact, been the instrument for keeping this conversation alive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, has Georgetown taken steps to try to track down the descendants? Because, when you think about it, 272 people from the 1800s, that actually could be thousands of people by now.


And one of the sort of remarkable things about the Georgetown situation is that the records that the Jesuits kept of that sale are actually really quite complete. And so, with the assistance — actually, really, in many ways, the alumni sort of pushed this conversation, members of the alumni community of Georgetown, and actually helped to both fund and encourage the process of reaching out and going out to Louisiana and helping to track the genealogies of the families who are related to those 272 slaves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And we’re talking a lot about Georgetown today and a few other schools, but, really, when you look up and down the Eastern Seaboard for hundreds of years, all of the early, early colleges likely had some of this in their past.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yes, every college established before the American Revolution — there are nine colleges established before the revolution in the British colonies. They’re all, in fact, established by slave traders and slave owners.

After the American Revolution, we established 17 colleges, one every year until 1800. Those colleges have close ties to slavery because they’re founded with the recovery of the slave economy after the war. And in the decades before the Civil War, it’s the rise of the cotton economy that drives the expansion of American higher education.

And so the story of American education, higher education in particular, is the story of American slavery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Craig Steven Wilder, thanks so much.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Online, the discussion of race continues. Milwaukee was rocked by riots last month after a young man was killed by police. We talked to community leaders and city officials about the city’s history of segregation and what hope there is for future generations.