Georgetown’s Plan Spurs Hopes for a Shift in How Universities Confront Ties to Slavery

September 02, 2016

Annie Flanagan, The New York Times, Redux
Georgetown U. has embarked on a broad-ranging effort to make amends for the college’s sale of 272 slaves in 1838. The Jesuit institution’s president, John J. DeGioia (shown visiting descendants of one of those slaves in Maringouin, La., in June), announced on Thursday some specific steps the university will take.
When Georgetown University announced on Thursday a series of steps it will take in a continuing effort to make amends for its sale of its slaves nearly 200 years ago, scholars of slavery at other institutions were watching closely.

As a key part of its plan, Georgetown will give preferred admissions treatment to descendants of those 272 slaves, who were sold in 1838.

No other university has given descendants of its slaves legacy status in the admission process, said Craig S. Wilder, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research focuses on slavery and universities.

In a report and a statement published online, Georgetown said it would also establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and rename two campus buildings — one for a slave named Isaac and one for Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman of color who in 1827 founded a school for African-American girls in the Georgetown neighborhood. The university also plans to create a memorial to enslaved people.

Among universities that have grappled with their ties to slavery, Georgetown’s actions stand out, Mr. Wilder said, because they demonstrate that it has embraced an "institutional responsibility" to investigate those relationships, instead of charging only individual scholars with doing so.

The university’s reparations may also be fueled by its Jesuit identity, Mr. Wilder said. Georgetown’s history with slavery, he added, "couldn’t be addressed simply as an intellectual problem."

Last year Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, charged a campus Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation with determining how the university could best approach and make amends for its ties to slavery. Scholars set out to find families of slave descendants, now spread out across the nation.

The university’s actions raise the bar for other institutions dealing with similar challenges, even though many colleges aren’t in a position to make such specific and seamless changes, said Kirt von Daacke, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia.

Virginia has a similar commission to confront its ties to slavery, but UVa was not in the business of owning slaves, Mr. von Daacke said. Instead, it rented or borrowed slaves from community members to help maintain, build, and run the university, and names and records of those individuals are sparse.

In most cases, it’s nearly impossible to track hired help to owners, forcing the university to rely on familial knowledge, he said. It’s tough for scholars to track down those people, as the university hasn’t always had a great relationship with its community.

"Some portions of the community here refer to the university as a big plantation," Mr. von Daacke said. Now he and other scholars are trying to change that.

Reconciliation and Healing

At Clemson University, scholars are sorting through more than 800 names of convict laborers who built and maintained the college when it was founded, in 1889, after the Civil War, said Rhondda R. Thomas, an associate professor of African-American literature there.

“It really shifts the conversation away from simply the recovery of the story and commemorating the story to actually doing something tangible.”
Georgetown’s moves may influence Clemson administrators as they begin to question whether the South Carolina institution should also offer reparations to descendants of the people who helped build the university, Ms. Thomas said.

"It really shifts the conversation away from simply the recovery of the story and commemorating the story to actually doing something tangible," she said.

Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history at Georgetown, said she hoped other institutions would engage with the difficult parts of their histories and follow Georgetown’s lead, even if they lack detailed records.

"What institutions need to think about is their historical impact, their exclusionary policies toward various communities, and the way that institutions are uniquely poised to do the critical work of racial reconciliation and healing," Ms. Chatelain said.

Georgetown set the bar higher for other institutions grappling with their ties to slavery, and its action-based plans may make other administrators nervous, Ms. Thomas said.

But it will be worthwhile, she added. "I hope that it will dramatically shift the conversation."

Correction (9/2/2016, 12:03 p.m.): This article originally stated that UVa never owned slaves. But the university did own at least one. The story has been updated to reflect that the institution was not in the business of owning slaves.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at