Georgetown, other historical beneficiaries of slavery, should be held accountable

I broke my own rule. I read the comments.

Well, more like I bent the rule. I didn't read them on any of my posts, but on a post by Maureen Fiedler. Stunned to learn her alma mater, Georgetown University, sold 272 slaves in 1838 to raise money to keep the institution open, Fiedler supports a call for Georgetown to offer full scholarships to descendants of the men, women and children two early college presidents, who were also Jesuit priests, arranged to sell. Additionally, she suggests the university "offer a 'home base' for the Black Lives Matter movement."

I read the comments, and I was disappointed, but not surprised to see the annoyance, sarcasm, exasperation, defiance and ignorance of history and reality white people often display when offering their opinion on matters of slavery and reparations. In their disagreement with Fiedler, one person stated they were tired "of being held accountable for things that happened 178 years ago." One commenter stated that "blacks get 40% of all federal entitlements" and that those entitlements were a "steady stream of reparations for the last 50 years." The commenter expressed that the "war on poverty" was enough and couldn't understand why blacks can't just work hard and become CEOs like Chinese and Indian people do. After all, "Many of the Indian and Chinese immigrants in the US today were actually the ones persecuted in their Native counties, not their great great great great uncle's friend."

Reading that was frustrating, at best. Educating or explaining race, racism, slavery and history to people who probably will never get it is exhausting, oppressive and not my responsibility, but I read the comments, so here's my response:

There's a difference between being held accountable for something that happened 178 years ago and trying to make amends for something that happened long ago, but whose effects continue today. In the case of Georgetown -- and in the case of much of the U.S., including the economic force that is Wall Street -- the university exists today because of slave labor. According to The New York Times, Georgetown "relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations." Additionally, "slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners." This means the college didn't even have to pay to acquire most of the labor. It means people who were already working the land at the college for free were then sold to save the institution and pull it out of debt. (Anyone else find it incredible that businesses and individuals could still end up in debt when they expended nothing on employees?)

Even if the emotional horror of being separated from family, faith and what some knew as home wasn't enough of a case for reparations, the financial benefit Georgetown received is. The people the Jesuit priests at Georgetown sold cost them nothing. The benefits to the institution have been endless. What did the slaves get? According to the Times, some of them couldn't even go to Mass anymore.

It's true that because the slaves were black, laws and events like the Black Codes, racial terrorism campaigns, Jim Crow, housing segregation and being largely excluded from benefits of the GI Bill and from Social Security -- some of which immigrants arriving in the early to mid-1900s also had to endure, but none to the extent descendants of African slaves did -- would have happened anyway and would have affected them the same way it did millions of black people for generations. But Georgetown can make righting its wrong specific to the university by locating as many descendants as possible and offering them full scholarships or graduate fellowships.

The danger Georgetown faces is that these descendants might not be ready to enter a top-tier university, because of generations of surviving as second-class citizens after emancipation, without access to the same housing, jobs and education that whites had. Therefore, I think the institution needs to start younger and wider. Georgetown could start a scholarship fund to send the K-12 descendants to private schools, or a fund to help their families move to neighborhoods where the best public schools are located. Or it could start a fund to help descendants' families start businesses, continue their education as adults, enter rehab, buy new clothes for job interviews, or assist them with re-entering the workforce after incarceration from a criminal justice system that targets black neighborhoods and affects African-Americans disproportionately.

The wrongs done to black people in this country have been enormous and not limited to slavery. The possibilities for fair reparations are equally vast.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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