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Georgetown University takes an unprecedented step to make amends for slavery

Many American colleges were built by slavery. None have ever offered amends directly to slaves’ families.

Washington, DC Landmarks Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Georgetown University made an unprecedented move Thursday when University President John DeGioia announced the university will offer preferential admission to the descendants of slaves sold to finance the school in the early 19th century.

“We must acknowledge that Georgetown University participated in the institution of slavery,” DeGioia said. “There were slaves here on this hilltop until emancipation in 1862.”

Last November, Georgetown faced pressure to take steps to redress racism following a wave of campus protests that swept the country last fall — most notably at the University of Missouri, where university President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned following criticism of mishandling racist incidents on campus.

At Georgetown, students focused their attention on the names of two buildings: Mulledy Hall, a new dormitory, and McSherry Hall, a meditation center, named after Jesuit priests Thomas F. Mulledy and William McSherry who facilitated the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 to help curb the university’s onerous debt, according to the New York Times.

The university temporarily renamed Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, respectively in November, per the recommendation of the university Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation. The Associated Press reported Thursday that the buildings will now be named after Isaac, one of the slaves who was sold, and Anne Marie Becraft, who created a school for black girls in the area in 1827.

“We provide care and respect for the members of the Georgetown community: faculty, staff, alumni, those with an enduring relationship with Georgetown,” DeGioia said. “We will provide the same care and respect to the descendants [of slaves].”

Why Georgetown’s new policy is such a big deal

Georgetown University’s historical reliance on slavery is both unsurprising and unique.

In Ebony & Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder notes just how integral slavery was to American higher education since its inception:

In short, American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery. The European invasion of the Americas and the modern slave trade pulled peoples throughout the Atlantic world into each others’ lives, and colleges were among the colonial institutions that braided their histories and rendered their fates dependent and antagonistic. The academy never stood apart from American slavery — in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.

In March, Harvard Law School announced it would resign its shield after it was tied to the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., whose family owned slaves. Royall gave land to the college to create its first law professorship. Cornell University is, in fact, the only Ivy League university that didn’t participate in the slave trade.

In 2003, Brown University issued a report on the university’s slavery history that recommended “commission[ing] a memorial that recognizes the university’s ties to slave trading” as well as funding events and lectures on the subject of slavery.

But universities with similar histories aren’t necessarily able to follow Georgetown’s footsteps. People who were enslaved weren’t always recorded. By contrast, Georgetown is able to try to pay it forward to the direct descendants of slaves precisely because the sale was well-documented, with bills of sale that identify the slaves by name.

“This is not a disembodied group of people, who are nameless and faceless,” Richard J. Cellini, a Georgetown University alumnus, told the New York Times. “These are real people with real names and real descendants.”

There are limits to the policy. Although Georgetown is making a concerted effort to prioritize descendants of the 272 slaves in its admission policy, it does not include financial assistance as was recommended in a report by the university’s working group.

There are questions as to whether this is actually a form of reparations, or compensation, or an affirmative action policy to create opportunities that, based on inequalities, did not previously exist. But, at the very least, Georgetown’s directive is the first of many steps to rectify the indelible mark of slavery on American colleges and universities.