Georgetown to Research, Give Admission Preference to Slave Descendants

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Georgetown University has announced it will be giving preference in the admissions process to descendants of slaves that had been owned by the Maryland Jesuits as a way to atone for profiting from those sales.

Georgetown president John DeGioia made the announcement, adding that the school would be working to identify and notify all the descendants of slaves they could find in an effort to recruit students.  They will be offered the same advantage toward admissions that is given to prospective students who have parents or grandparents that had attended Georgetown.

A university committee also released a report late last week pushing for school leaders to issue a formal apology for the participation of the university in the slave trade.

“As we join the Georgetown community we must understand that part of our history is this history of slaveholding and the slave trade,” said the chair of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, David Collins, S.J.. “And that opens our eyes to broader social issues that are still unhealed in our nation,” he said.

“History matters up to the present and into the future.”

When the original Georgetown College was founded in 1789, it was partially funded by plantations owned and operated by Jesuits, who worked with slave labor.  Profits made by the plantation went to fund the institution, reports Kathryn Vasel for CNN.

In addition, when two priests served as president of the university in 1838, they arranged the sale of 272 people in an effort to pay off the debt of the school.  As a result of the sale, the school earned $115,000, or about $3.3 million today, and the slaves were sent from Maryland to Louisiana “where they labored under dreadful conditions.”

The sale would end up being one of the largest documented sales of enslaved people in history.  The names of many of those who had been sold can be found in bills of sale, a transport manifest, as well as in other documents.  Genealogical research has already begun at the university in an effort to identify living descendants of those who were sold.

As a result of the recommendation made by the committee, President DeGioia said a number of steps would be taken.  An apology will be made for the relationship between the school and slavery.  In addition, buildings on campus will be renamed in honor of Isaac, a slave who had been listed in the documents of the 1838 sale, and Anne Marie Becraft, a free black woman who  founded a school for black girls.  A public memorial will be created for the enslaved, as well as a research institute, titled the Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies, writes Rachel Swarns for The New York Times.

Richard Cellini, an alumnus of Georgetown who has performed research on the slave trade, estimates there are between 10,000 and 15,000 descendants of the 272 slaves sold by the school who are alive today.

“We cannot do our best work if we refuse to take ownership of such a critical part of our history,” DeGioia said at the press conference.