Georgetown University and a legacy of slavery

Georgetown is my alma mater. I did my graduate work there from 1970 to early 1977. I have come to treasure those years and that education, so I was stunned to read the story by Rachel Swarns in The New York Times on Sun., April 17. It recounts the way Jesuits at Georgetown in 1838 sold 272 slaves to raise money to keep the university afloat.

These 272 people included men, women, children, and even a two-month-old baby and her mother. They were put on ships, headed for plantations in the Deep South, where slaves' living and working conditions were especially horrific.

According to the Times, "The enslaved were grandmothers and grandfathers, carpenters and blacksmiths, pregnant women and anxious fathers, children and infants, who were fearful, bewildered and despairing as they saw their families and communities ripped apart by the sale of 1838."

When I was a student at Georgetown in the 1970s, I recall hearing stories about the fact that the early Jesuits who founded the university owned slaves, and that slaves did a lot of the early work on the buildings and grounds. I was horrified to hear it, and still more horrified that Jesuit priests not only tolerated it, but participated in it.

That was bad enough. But this fact of selling 272 slaves to keep the place alive was not part of the common knowledge that spread around campus at that time about early Georgetown history. This story is a stunner!

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But now that the truth has become public, it is right and just that the two Jesuits most responsible for the sale, Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and Rev. William McSherry, have had their names removed from campus buildings. These buildings are now called Remembrance Hall and Freedom Hall. But I am most hopeful that the historians and others who are working to find the descendants of these enslaved people will be successful. When and if located, these descendants should be offered full scholarships to Georgetown, including room and board.  

The current president of Georgetown, Jack DeGioia, may have been as stunned as many of us to discover the story of slavery at our alma mater. He has responded appropriately -- at least to the extent possible given this history -- by giving speeches in which he acknowledged that he is acutely aware of the need for reparations, and that he is searching for appropriate responses.

So, I have one further suggestion for my alma mater. Since, in 1838, black lives obviously did not matter to Georgetown, the university today might offer a "home base" for the Black Lives Matter movement. This is one of the strongest groups working to overcome the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States today. And, oh, yes -- Georgetown should fund it.


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