Georgetown University is joining a growing movement of colleges providing restitution for their ties to slavery, announcing on Tuesday that it will launch a new fundraising effort to assist the living descendants of the 272 enslaved men and women sold by the school’s Jesuit founders.
The announcement comes six months after students at Georgetown voted to create a fund to support the descendants, with students committing to the creation of a $27.20 student fee that would generate roughly $400,000 annually to support the descendants.
The April referendum was non-binding but marked an important moment in a recently resurgent national conversation about reparations that has involved activists, presidential candidates, and other academic institutions. The final decision on the funding plan, however, was left to university officials. For months after the vote, the school did not comment on whether it planned to adopt the proposed fee, leading to increased pressure from the students who voted for it.
Now, Georgetown says that it will move forward with the effort, but in a different way than what students voted for. Rather than creating a reparations fund through a new student fee, school officials say that the university will rely on fundraising to pay for it, sparking criticism from some students skeptical that a donation-based program will be sufficient.
“We embrace the spirit of this student proposal and will work with our Georgetown community to create an initiative that will support community-based projects with Descendant communities,” Georgetown president John J. DeGioia wrote in a letter to the university this week. In the same statement, DeGioia added that the school “will ensure that the initiative has resources commensurate with, or exceeding, the amount that would have been raised annually” through the proposed student fee.
According to the New York Times, the fund, which will also be used to help pay for Descendant community-based projects like health clinics and schools, is just one part of a larger commitment sought by the descendants of those sold in the 1838 deal that generated roughly 3.3 million in modern dollars, and helped settle the school’s debts. In 2016, the Times notes, a group of descendants asked for “$1 billion for a foundation that would finance educational, health, housing and other needs.”
Georgetown is the third school in the past two months to announce plans to provide some form of financial restitution to the descendants of the enslaved. In September, Virginia Theological Seminary announced a $1.7 million fund to “help address the ‘particular needs’ of the descendants of slaves who worked at the seminary,” and create new programs supporting black clergy and alumni. Less than two weeks before Georgetown’s announcement, Princeton Theological Seminary announced a $27 million program that will include scholarships and other educational efforts aimed at better acknowledging the school’s ties to slavery.
While the three schools are being commended for reckoning with and acknowledging the specific ways their institutions benefited from the labor and sale of enslaved men and women, the efforts have not come without criticism. Some students arguing that the measures still don’t go far enough.
More schools are examining their ties to slavery, but they’re dealing with that history in different ways
A growing number of schools have started to look into reparations and restitution for descendants of the enslaved. But most of these schools have stopped short of supporting actual funds to provide compensation, instead launching studies to better understand how they profited or otherwise benefitted from the use of enslaved labor.
These efforts have led to initiatives like Universities Studying Slavery, a University of Virginia-led consortium of roughly 50 schools that examines the history and legacy of slavery and its continued impacts in the present. Individual schools have also looked into the matter; earlier this year at the University of Virginia, for example, a genealogist began working to identify and find the descendants of some of the 4,000 slaves estimated to have worked on the university’s campus before 1865.
The majority of these projects have not yet led to financial reparations, instead culminating in the announcement of new academic programs or efforts to reduce the on-campus prominence of figures who owned men and women. However, in some cases, these programs have served as the first step toward the creation of a larger funding program.
At Georgetown, for example, the announcement of the new fundraising effort comes years after the school first began to study the 1838 sale. In 2016, the school announced a new preferred admissions program for living descendants and also said that it would rename two campus buildings after black Americans. As those announcements occurred, the school also said that it would study the sale further and genealogists were able to identify many of the descendants of the 272 men and women.
In 2016, the New York Times reported that there were potentially thousands of descendants of the people who were sold, the majority of them concentrated in Maryland and Louisiana. An April Politico Magazine article noted that some of the descendants have spent generations living in towns like Maringouin, Louisiana, which struggles with a limited number of available jobs, below-median income, and an under-resourced school system.
But what was possible at Georgetown may not necessarily translate to other schools. The 1838 sale was extensively recorded, which made it possible — but not necessarily easy — for living descendants to be located. And some supporters of reparations programs at colleges have argued that these programs should go beyond announcements of new funds or scholarships to acknowledge each school’s history and tell a more complete story of how the institution built its success on the backs of enslaved men and women.
This is something that came up when Princeton Theological Seminary announced that it would set aside $27 million for scholarships and other initiatives as it works to acknowledge its ties to slavery. After the program was announced, black students at the seminary said that the fund is a good start, but added that the school still had more to do, arguing that the $27 million was an insufficient amount and that the school also needed to address how it “used theology to justify the institution of slavery.”
And some academics studying reparations, like Duke University’s William Darity, argue that while university-based programs are well intentioned, they are ultimately not sufficient to deal with an issue that benefited the United States as a whole.
“It’s the federal government’s policies and practices that permitted these atrocities to take place,” Darity told NPR this week, “both because of the legal framework the government established but also because of its implicit approval of these kinds of practices by its failure to intervene.”
It is likely that as the national debate about reparations moves forward, colleges and universities will continue to be active participants in discussions about what America owes to the descendants of the enslaved. But if the country is truly committed to answering that question, schools can’t be the only ones taking action.