Georgetown University outlines action plan for past ties to slavery

by Traci Badalucco

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The president of the country's oldest Catholic university announced Thursday that the school would begin offering admission preference to those whose ancestors were used or sold as slaves by Georgetown, a move to both acknowledge and reconcile the school's historical ties to slavery.

Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, a group of 15 members assigned by President John J. DeGioia to make recommendations on how to address the university's historical connection to the institution of slavery and propose opportunities for dialogue, submitted their findings to the president this summer. The 104-page report was released Sept. 1.

"I am grateful to the many members of our community who have thoughtfully and respectfully contributed their perspectives and shared their insights," wrote DeGioia in the report's preface.

"I look forward to continuing to work together in an intentional effort to engage these recommendations and move forward toward justice and truth," added DeGioia in a statement posted on the university's website Thursday afternoon.

The group, which includes faculty, students and alumni, was also tasked with examining the history of two buildings on campus named after slave traders.

"There was a mutual respect and admiration for each other and for the unique roles that we play, whether we were students at Georgetown, whether we were administrators at Georgetown, whether we were faculty," said Working Group member Rosemary Kilkenny (L'87), vice president for institutional equity and diversity, according to Georgetown's website. "We all had a unique role … the one commonality was that … we are all committed to Georgetown."

The group's recommendations include renaming two buildings on campus to Isaac Hall, named after one of the victims of the slave trade at the time, and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, named after an African-American woman who opened a school for black girls in Georgetown in 1827, according to the site. DeGioia and the Georgetown University Board of Directors have approved the name change recommendations.

The buildings, temporarily named Remembrance Hall and Freedom Hall, were previously named after Jesuit priests who sold slaves in the 1830s.

The Black Leadership Forum, a student-led organization, staged a sit-in in 2015 with almost 200 students at the doorstep of DeGioia's office, "where we were determined to remain until the two buildings named after Fathers [William] McSherry and [Thomas] Mulledy had been renamed," said Ayodele Aruleba, a Georgetown student NCR interviewed in February.

NCR reported in March on a string of Catholic colleges that have made diversity and racial justice a top priority on their campuses. This includes safe spaces on campus for students to speak freely about sensitive topics, the hiring of chief diversity officers, and campus surveys to address future needs.

DeGioia responded Thursday with his own initiatives based on the report, including a Mass of reconciliation with the Washington archdiocese and the Society of Jesus in the United States. The university will also establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies at Georgetown, the site reads.

Georgetown will continue to "engage directly with descendants of slaves and with members of the Georgetown community in this ongoing effort," the university's website reads.

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