Photo courtesy of Ken Lund / Flickr

Students Vote to Bring Georgetown's Fraught Racial History Into the Light

On April 11, Georgetown University students voted to include a fee in their tuition to benefit the descendants of the 272 slaves that were sold by Jesuits to fund the university in 1838. This referendum was voted on by 58% of the student body and 66% of those who voted were in favor to include a $27.20 increase per student per semester. With an undergraduate enrollment of around 7,500, this would accumulate to a little over $400,000 per year. The proceeds would go towards education and health care programs in Louisiana and Maryland, where many descendants of the 272 enslaved people are known to reside.

Although the University has not formally agreed to adopt the provisions of the referendum, president John J. DeGioia released a statement commenting that “this moment raises complex issues that we are prepared to grapple with and embrace.”

Although previously hesitant to directly address reparations, DeGioia has engaged with this part of Georgetown’s history in the past. In 2016, he wrote about steps that, “address the University’s responsibility to acknowledge and respond,” to the history of slavery. The descendants of the slaves sold to provide financial security for Georgetown have been offered preferential admission to the University and one of the halls has been renamed to honor the first enslaved person named in the sale.

Passing the referendum regarding reparations with an overwhelming majority is an impressive feat; however, it is not meant to solve the problem. Many students at Georgetown still believe not enough is being done, believing the burden of addressing the issue falls too heavily upon students. Some members of the community feel the decision to add to their own tuition is unnecessary considering the University’s $1.6 billion endowment.

What is even more troubling about this referendum is how it had not been seriously discussed earlier, and at other schools. Although Georgetown’s history has been reported on more recently, many other schools relied on enslaved persons either in terms of labor or other monetary benefits.

An overwhelming number of elite colleges and universities have not fully addressed their own connections to slavery. Many southern schools, notably the University of Virginia, were built from slave labor. Yale used an inherited slave plantation in Rhode Island that funded major programs at the University. The fifth president of Princeton, which has a particularly fraught racial history, orchestrated an auction of his slaves in his home in 1766.

John McElroy, the founder of Boston College and Boston College High School, was among the Jesuits involved with this sale in 1838. McElroy, a Georgetown University alumnus, held the title of Clerk of Georgetown College, which entailed issuing runaway slave advertisements and return rewards. Isaac Hawkins, a slave featured in one of these advertisements, was later one of the 272 sold.

As America continues to attempt to address its own racial history, it becomes even more important to address the overwhelming majority of higher education institutions that directly profited from the institution of slavery. Modern racial inequalities and prejudices have explicit roots in this part of America’s history.

The referendum passed by Georgetown students is one step towards amending the previous actions of an institution. Colleges and universities have the opportunity to guide students during formative years of their lives. The ways institutions do or do not address their own failures genuinely affects progress. If the Georgetown administration chooses to follow through with the desires of its student body, it would be making candid and sincere steps to address the university’s dark history. Even further, they would be increasing the hope that others will do the same.

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